The National Writers Union has filed what could prove to be something of a landmark lawsuit against Ebony Media Operations and its parent company, Clear View Group, LLC., on behalf of dozens of freelance writers, who claim they are owed more than $70,000 in unpaid wages. The lawsuit, which was filed on Tuesday in state court in Cook County, Illinois, alleges that Ebony failed to compensate 39 writers, editors and other creatives for contributions to its print and web publications in violation of state wage and labor laws.
Larry Goldbetter, president of the National Writers Union, which is representing the class of individual freelancers, says the lawsuit is the necessary next step in the fight to organize freelancers to fight against "publishers seeking to exploit creative labor." Such a movement is necessary, he says, as "oftentimes, freelancers are at the mercy of the publications they write for. They often lack union protections other workers have and many are afraid of being blackballed for speaking up about nonpayment.
As the hashtag #EbonyOwes started to trend on Twitter earlier this year, the national trade union began organizing Ebony freelancers. As a result, Ebony Media issued a statement to NBC promising to pay all freelancers in full by the first week of July, but failed to do so.
“It’s really shameful,” A.J. Springer, one of the writers named in the lawsuit, stated after its filing. “A lot of us grew up reading Ebony, so to have to take this to court is beyond disappointing. But as journalists, we are truth tellers who stand on the side of right. Ebony is clearly wrong.”
The National Writers Union estimates that as much as $200,000 may be owed to freelancers by Ebony. But as Goldbetter notes, this situation is far from unique to the once-heralded African-American publication: “Non-payment is an epidemic for freelance writers. That is why we joined the campaign to establish the Freelance Isn’t Free law in NYC last year."
Pay Your Freelancers
The lawsuit comes amidst widespread complaints within the fashion industry - and beyond - regarding the terms of massive publications' deals with freelance writers and other creatives. This spring, Vogue's parent company Condé Nast made headlines for adding language to its freelance contracts to allow for quicker payment in exchange for a discount on the agreed-upon rate. This set the industry and the internet abuzz with fury.
Fashionista first shed light on the vendor memo issued by Condé, introducing the new payment terms. According to the memo, “At the top of our project list is an accelerated payment option, which will allow you to get paid more quickly when a small discount taken off the invoice is accepted. There will be more news coming out on this enhancement over the next few months.” (Note: Condé Nast has since stated that the new language is meant for larger vendors, such as Staples and FedEx, and not individual creatives).
According to a 2016 Freelancers Union survey, freelancer wage abuse is a widespread epidemic in New York and other major cities in the U.S. The report states: “More than 70% of freelancers in New York alone report that they have trouble getting paid for their work. On average, freelancers were stiffed $5,968 in 2014.”
As Goldbetter stated, New York City has enacted legislation - the first of its kind in the country - dedicated to ensuring that freelancers are paid. The law, entitled NYC Freelance Isn’t Free Act, also aims to ensure that freelancers are subject to “mandatory contracts, 30-day payment terms, payment agreement protections, contract responsibility on behalf of the client, anti-retaliation protection, and non-payment penalties."
In accordance with the law, which was enacted by Mayor Bill de Blasio on May 15, 2017, New York City-based businesses that do not pay their freelancers on time face a possible lawsuit and civil penalties of as much as $25,000. However, there are some significant barriers for creatives hoping the law will provide them with recourse. For instance, the local law only applies to freelancers who are paid more than $800 for their work, which is certainly not the case every freelancer, with some publications paying roughly $50 or so per article.
The Freelancers Union report puts the severity of the situation in a nutshell in writing: "Employment laws have not kept pace with the changing economy. At alarmingly high rates, freelance workers today struggle to collect payment for their work. Because they lack the same protections as traditional employees, they have little recourse to collect late and unpaid payments. These instances of nonpayment have a severe impact on a freelancer’s livelihood."