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Another month, another issue of Ebony magazine. Wednesday, director Ava DuVernay who is behind film projects like The 13th and Selma as well as the upcoming  A Wrinkle in Time and a social media-inspired Rihanna and Lupita film, shared the publication’s latest cover on Twitter.

“Royalty. All-new @EBONYMag,” she wrote above a photo that featured Kofi Siriboe, Rutina Wesley and Dawn-Lyen Gardner, all stars from DuVernay’s television series Queen Sugar. “All-new #QueenSugar tonight. Respect to the Ebony writers. We celebrate you and stand with you.”

It, like Chance the Rapper’s tweet a month before it, were both parts a celebration of a cover achievement as well as a direct shot at  Ebony’s internal problems that are soon to manifest into legal action.

As we reported last month, Ebony freelancers have taken to social media under the #EbonyOwes hashtag to accuse the publication of stiffing them on invoice payments. At the time of that report, The Root totalled those debts to $15,000. The affected parties included writers, a former creative director and a freelance managing editor. For the most part, Ebony seemed to downplay the severity of the accusations, chalking it up to how the media business is done. Yet days after our report and subsequent coverage by others, the publication finally released a statement.

Reportedly, Ebony’s lawyer, Renee Lewis, told the National Writers Union in a phone conversation that the payments would be handled on a rolling basis during those 30 days. That period ended on July 3 and with tens of thousands of dollars still reportedly unpaid. In response, the freelancers have served the publication and its parent company Clear View Group LLC, with a Taylor Swift-esque “see you in court.”

“This is completely unacceptable,” NWU President Larry Goldbetter said in a release about the missed deadline. According to NWU as many as 50 freelance writers are owed as much as $200,000, and within that, 30 of the organization’s writers are owed about $60,000. “We took them at their word, in good faith, despite some freelancers going more than a year without payment. Now, we move on to the next step.” That next step is through the judicial system.

“Creatives don’t work for free and there are very real consequences when we don’t get paid,” Goldbetter continued. “While EBONY Media executives from CVG were throwing lavish Super Bowl parties and Hollywood events, unpaid freelancers were struggling to pay the rent.” Sadly, this is an issue larger than Ebony.

According to statistics gathered by the Freelancers Union, 53 million Americans are freelancers. This number has been steadily growing since 2014 and is equivalent to about 3 out of every 10 people in the workplace. The union went on to estimate that freelance workforce earned $1 trillion in 2016. Those are not numbers to trifle with.

From the outside it seems that Ebony presumed words were enough, that they could in effect wait out the payments until this all blew over. This tactic is one frequently employed by media properties: each freelancer’s individual fees are negligible, so it’s not usually worth it for them to engage in legal action. Typically, freelancers eventually  get exasperated and move on without pressing the issue. But, for those awaiting payment, this was more than just a discussion, and it wasn’t going to just blow over.

One Ebony freelancer reported that they were facing eviction and needed the money to pay rent.  The NWU cites writer Kimberly Hayes Taylor who is a caregiver for her father and was counting on the payments to take her father to visit family before he underwent treatment. And while personal circumstances shouldn’t affect when and how people are paid the money they are owed by contract and by law, these stories show that these invoices mean more than just numbers on a PDF; this issue is one that directly affects livelihoods.

There are ways that freelancers can avoid being put in such a bind. Diversifying their client base to include a few companies that are known to pay on time with some newer publications that are less familiar is part of that. Tapping into multiple streams of income by doing a variety of different types of work and constantly keeping a rotation of jobs so that there is a continual income as opposed to occasional payouts, all can stave off emergencies.

Paired with base savings, these efforts can be quite successful at keeping freelancers on even financial footing. However, let’s be clear: nonpayment is not  the fault of these freelancers. That fault lies squarely on the shoulders of Ebony, CVG and other organizations who shirk their responsibilities, expressly disrespecting the labor put into contributed work.

Realistically, a possible class action lawsuit could do serious damage to Ebony. Having already dodged their self-imposed deadlines on multiple occasions, it’s not likely that the freelancers or the court system will have much sympathy in pursuing what is rightfully owed. And with an organization like the NWU hoping to make an example and set a precedent in an industry plagued with this particular issue, this could be yet another nail in the coffin of the iconic publication, but a nail that is ultimately, completely of their own making.

See our initial coverage of Ebony’s Chance the Rapper cover here

  • Writer: Andre Johnson
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