At press time, freelancers worldwide are owed a staggering $4.1 million from deadbeat clients, and the number is rising rapidly. The Freelancer’s Union, a New York-based group that represents the 1099ers among us, started a new project called the World’s Longest Invoice. It’s part-petition part-publicity stunt, and it’s all brilliant. Best of all for web petitions, it might actually make a difference.

Brett Jordan/flickr source

The website invites freelancers who have been bilked by clients in the past to list the amount owed and the services rendered, along with their name and ZIP code. The invoice is addressed to “Nonpaying Clients, 245 Deadbeats Lane, Everywhere, America” and it will be delivered to New York State Senate on May 22, 2012, as an effort to petition Albany to pass the Freelancer Payment Protection Act.

The bill in question aims to offer freelancers in New York more recourse when they’ve been stiffed by a client. It has already been passed by the State Assembly in June of 2011, but still needs the Senate’s approval to become law. If it does become law, any freelancer expecting more than $600 from a client, who has not received payment, can file a formal complaint with the New York State Department of Labor, and the Department will be compelled to investigate the claim. Not only will victims be entitled to 100% of what they’re owed, their deadbeat client will have to pay interest and attorney’s fees.

Some of the unpaid invoices on the site are staggering. Adam W. claims he was stiffed for $125,000 for Video Editing/Producing. Lynn says she got stiffed for $104,000 in consulting fees. Also some are quite small. Meagan H., for example, is still looking for $16 for social media management, and another $30 for “Short Biography for client.” It goes to show, however, that not everyone who freelances works for the occasional pittance — this is a lucrative and risky way of life for many.

But no matter how big or small, freelancers have far less legal recourse than wage-earning employees when it comes to non-paying employers. And as more labor becomes contracted out by companies, more and more labor could potentially go unpaid for, which is despicable. Typically, these contracts are structured so that work is delivered long before payment even begins, and there is no clawback provision for creative work. This leaves freelancers vulnerable to bankrupt or unscrupulous clients in a way that other workers are not.

So if you’ve ever been bilked by a client, head over to the World’s Longest Invoice and put your name in. You can also email or tweet New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos at the site, to encourage him to pass the bill.

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  • First sentence: Gotta be $4.1 billion with a “B,” because $4.1 million is far from staggering 😉

    • Paul Conley

      Nope. It’s million with an “m.” And is now about $13.2 million … staggering enough.

      • Hmmm, if I added up all the money deadbeats owed me over a 15-year career in advertising, I think it would be in the neighborhood of $250K. One guy alone filed BK and stuck me for $100K.

        The word “worldwide” is what’s giving me such a problem with this statistic. If I had one unpaid bill that could account for 2.4% of their estimate, how do the numbers add up? I’d think all the web/design freelancers in New Delhi alone are owed at least $4.1 million. Or $4.1 is owed to freelancers living in Southern California. But a whole country, let alone the whole world?According to an article in the Guardian, there are 42 million freelancers working in the US. So that would mean each one is owed an average of about a penny in unpaid invoices. I’m guessing each is owed more like an average of at least $20 from at least one deadbeat.

        • Well the thing about the Invoice is that it’s also a petition. People are signing it with the amount they’re owed — you should, too! $100K!? — so it’s self-reported, not a statistic.