Independent contractor and getting paid

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Q: I am an independent contractor and file my own taxes, etc.  One of my clients pays me on the first of every month, for the work completed in the prior month.  I should have a check in hand by today.  Now my client is requesting to talk to me in person about some things.  She is requesting a face-to-face meeting but I would prefer a phone meeting.  I asked if we could talk over the phone and she says, “whenever you come over to talk I will give you your check.” It feels like black mail to me.  Is this legal?  Doesn’t she have to release my check to me within a certain period of time?  What can I do?

A: The number of workers who are independent contractors roles has increased steadily in the past few decades.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2010, over 40% of the US workforce is now comprised of contingent workers.  Some of these workers are employed through temporary agencies, or some are hired for a specific task (e.g., website design, musician or photographer).  In 2005, that number hovered around 30%.  Sometimes called freelancers, there a number of reasons why workers enjoy this type of arrangement.  Flexibility is a primary reason.  “Gig workers” can accept or decline work to accommodate their schedules.  There are negatives too, including not enjoying some of the same benefits as an employee of a company.  Company-sponsored health insurance benefits, paid sick time and similar benefits are often no longer available.

I asked Jack Merrill, an employment attorney with Mayer, Antonellis, Jachowicz, and Haranas LLP to share his expertise. Merrill says, “The relationship between independent contractors and their customers is wholly based on the parties’ agreement.  If you agreed with your customer to perform work for a fee and you completed the work appropriately, she will need to honor her end of the bargain and pay you. Whether she can force you to drive to Boston to meet with her in order to be paid is another matter, likely a more complicated one. She cannot do so contractually unless this is part of your work arrangement. Still, if she refuses to pay until you meet with her, you are left with a bit of a conundrum. You may be able to sue her to enforce your contract, but doing so will likely be time consuming and costly.”

If you were an employee, you would have some legal recourse under the wage payment laws in Massachusetts.  Since you are not an employee, you have fewer protections against wage violations.  If you were an employee, Merrill explains, “The Massachusetts wage laws would apply and give you far more leverage than you appear to now have.  Employees must be paid the money they earn in timely fashion and in particular forms, and employers face stiff penalties if they violate the law.”

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.