The Check Is in the Mail. Maybe.
by Yvonne M. Jones for LinkedIn
Published October 24, 2014
It didn’t take long for my inbox to blow up after news outlets worldwide reported the recent arrest of Joseph Brucato, a Brooklyn postal carrier charged with failing to deliver over 40,000 pieces of mail since 2005.
“So that’s where my missing checks are. Gathering mildew in this guy’s basement,” direct messaged Gemma, the first of several freelancing friends to chime in with comments about the now viral news item.
Why did this story strike such a chord? Because it hit some of America’s 53 million freelancers right where it hurt — in the checking account.
Quiet as it’s kept, a surprising number of laptop-toting U.S. freelancers who can theoretically work from anywhere in the world still get paid the old-fashioned way — with paper checks delivered by USPS mail carriers like Mr. Brucato.
What kinds of companies still pay remote workers via snail mail? “For me, it’s been smaller companies that don’t want to eat the cost of the electronic transfer,” says Ike Herman, the Centennial, Colorado-based founder of One Room Schoolhouse Inc. and co-host of the Game Design Dojo podcast.
But size doesn’t necessarily matter. Kate Edwards, the Seattle, Washington-based Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), also works as a freelance geographer and culturalization consultant. The clients most likely to pay her by check are “large, well-established companies who have plenty of cash reserves.”
The nature of freelancing often precludes having plenty of cash reserves on hand, which makes even the occasional late, misdirected, or lost paper check a big problem. One complicating factor is that some freelancers don’t find out that a new client pays by check until after they’ve been hired.
“It’s usually worked into my contract how I’ll be receiving payment,” says Denver, Colorado-based freelance video game artist Renee Nejo. “When I first started out, however, I would find out after I accepted the assignment.”
“I often don’t find that kind of info out until I get hired and receive the ton of paperwork you often have to fill out,” says Jennifer Gidman, a Long Island-based writer and editor who has freelanced for over 20 years.
“I try to work with people I know directly or friends of friends,” Battagline says. “Part of the reason I like paying contractors before the work is done is I know how stressful it is to be a contractor and have a client that is slow to pay.”
Even when slow to arrive checks aren’t the norm, a freelancer’s bottom line — and patience — can take a hit.
“Usually, it is in the mail,” Nejo says, “but on occasion when a check never arrives and it’s the same client every time, I start to suspect. In the past I would sometimes get that excuse, and I would have to arrange to receive payment in person after a lot of correspondence.”
“I’ve been very lucky in that I haven’t had too many of these experiences,” Gidman says. “But the ones I’ve had involved much aggravation and paperwork on my part to get paid.”
She describes a major client who “told me twice that the check was in the mail, and when I didn’t receive it, I would follow up and get extremely vague emails about a timeline for payment.”
“The company was basically on the verge of bankruptcy,” Gidman recalls. “I had to go the certified letter route in which I mentioned I’d be contacting the Better Business Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor, etc., unless I received prompt payment.” She received her check months after it was due.
“The check is in the mail” isn’t always just an unoriginal excuse, as Edwards notes. “I think it’s often been a matter of [my client contacts] honestly believing their accountants sent the check, but the accountants didn’t for a variety of reasons.”
Herman recalls a fellow contractor who stopped working on a project because his payment never arrived.
“The check got lost at some point,” he says, “so the client voided it and sent out another, only to find it had arrived and was already cashed. Then our client had to cancel out the second check. So a pretty innocent problem, and now the two parties aren’t working together unfortunately.”
For Nejo, moving to a new city meant new and unexpected problems with snail mailed payments. “When I moved to Denver from Phoenix, it was a total nightmare. I had changed my address with a client who had been in good standing with me for years, and I even received my first check in the mail right on time. But then two weeks go by with out any mail at all, including my check!”
“When I talked to the post office about what had happened, [it turned out that] the mailman just did whatever he wanted,” Nejo says, still incredulous. “He put my mail in other people’s boxes, and their mail in mine. It was ridiculous. It’s gotten better, but not really how it should.”
And freelancers who receive payments by mail sometimes have to fret over short trips and vacations if there’s no one on the home front to collect — and deposit — a check in their absence.
Being home to receive a check doesn’t always reduce the nuisance factor, even in these high-tech times when so many banks allow you to deposit a check by smartphone. “Getting those checks cashed timely is always a pain,” Herman says, “even if its just the problem of me making time to go to the bank.”
Should freelancers simply, I don’t know, just ask current clients to pay by direct deposit or other speedy methods? Battagline is open to discussing it.
“I have paid at least one contractor via PayPal, but it has been quite a while,” he says.
“It’s always been philosophy to do what’s best for the client,” Nejo says, “and if that means let them pay how they want, it’s fine by me. As long as I’m paid for the work at the agreed upon terms.”
“I always ask since I just don’t like going to the bank,” Herman says. “The real problem for the clients that I work with is that usually there is a fee, and who is going to pay it? I’ve had people agree to it if we split the cost.”
Edwards is also comfortable asking clients to consider faster methods of payment. “They usually say something like, ‘We’re sorry, but we’re just not set up for that yet.’ Yes, this is the 21st century.”
Still, check payments aren’t necessarily a red flag when it comes to new freelance clients.
“The deal breaker is the failure to pay,” Nejo stresses. “It may seem that the mail provides an excuse to displace blame for non-payment, but it’s the failure itself that really ends the relationship for me.”
“I’ve been fortunate, though,” she continues. “These issues have been resolved in the past. There isn’t a whole lot anyone can do to prevent that sort of fallout, except be picky about whom you do business with. But that’s not always an option if business is slow, or you are just starting out.”
“It definitely would not be a deal breaker,” Gidman affirms, “depending on other circumstances — and based on my confidence level in getting paid in a timely way, whether I had worked for them before, word-of-mouth, or whatever.”
“But I am more apt to push for [direct deposit],” she adds, “and if a company cannot or won’t do direct deposit, I have to wonder a little how up on things they really are, since some of my smallest clients have been able to offer that capability, even if I haven’t taken advantage of it.”
Herman, for his part, probably won’t draw a line in the proverbial sand on this issue with future clients. “I’m far too trusting of people,” he says.