A number of former writers for the Corvallis Advocate say the local weekly newspaper owes them thousands of dollars in back pay for work that dates back as far as 2013 — and there seems to be no way to force publisher Steve Schultz to pay up.
Ygal Kaufman, who worked for the Advocate from mid-2013 until June of last year, said Schultz owes him more than $2,500 for writing assignments he completed but was never paid for. Chris Singer, who worked off and on for the Advocate and its sister publication, the monthly Valley Parent, for several years, said Schultz owes him just over $1,900. Patrick Fancher, who now writes for the Gazette-Times, said he has more than $1,400 coming for work he did at the Advocate and Alicia James said the weekly owes her about $500.
All four say they know other former employees who were paid late or, in some cases, not at all.
By going public with their complaints, the writers say, they’re hoping to put pressure on Schultz to pay them the money they have coming to them — and prevent others from falling into the same trap.
“Twenty-five hundred dollars is an enormous amount of money to me,” said Kaufman. “And besides, I want him to stop screwing other writers. It’s unconscionable.”
Schultz declined to say whether he disputed the debts or discuss the issue with the Gazette-Times.
“I think some people have been fired from the Advocate,” Schultz said last week. “That’s all I have to say.”
It’s not clear whom Schultz was referring to, but all four writers interviewed by the Gazette-Times say they quit rather than being fired.
The Corvallis Advocate began publishing in February 2012 when Schultz, who had been putting out the monthly Valley Parent since 2002, saw an opportunity to fill the void created by the demise of a previous local newsweekly, The Alchemist.
From the outset, the Advocate relied on a stable of freelancers to carry much of the writing load. In general, they were supposed to be paid 5 cents a word for their work, invoicing the publication at the end of each month and then receiving a check 30 days after that.
In many cases, however, the checks would be late — sometimes by several months, disgruntled former writers said.
“The excuses just kept coming, and the checks were farther and farther apart,” said James, who wrote for the Advocate for about eight months starting in May 2014.
“I’ve done freelance before,” she added. “I never had any problem with any of my clients getting paid before. This is just kind of beyond the pale.”
Singer performed a number of tasks for the Corvallis Advocate and Valley Parent, including writing, editing and web design. From the beginning, he said, Schultz would fall behind on paying him and others, saying he needed to collect money owed by advertisers.
“You do work in good faith and you get excuse upon excuse,” Singer said. “I had other writers who I hired for Valley Parent who never got a check. Never.”
Fancher expressed similar frustrations.
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“In the four or five years it’s been running, they still haven’t figured out their finances? That’s pretty shady,” he said.
The situation came to a head in May 2015. Faced with a chorus of complaints from writers demanding their back pay, Schultz sent an apologetic letter to his staffers, saying the paper “will need to restructure its debts so that its finances can become sustainable.” (To read the full text of the letter, see the photo gallery with the online version of this story.)
The letter went on to say that the Advocate would begin paying off its debts to staffers in monthly installments, “starting with amounts that are minimal and stepping them up as the paper’s ability to pay increases.”
As promised, writers who were owed money by the paper began getting monthly checks — in $5 installments. Even those payments stopped coming for awhile earlier this year, several of the writers said, and the amounts were so insultingly small most of them never bothered to cash the checks anyway.
“It’s a slap,” Singer said.
Kaufman said the paper, after repeated demands from him, recently offered to up his payments to $50 a month. But even at that rate, he pointed out, it would take 51 months — more than four years — to settle the debt.
“That’s not a realistic time schedule,” Kaufman said. “I have no reason to believe they’ll be in business 51 months from now.”
Hoping for help from the government, several of the former staffers contacted the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries but were told there may be nothing the state can do.
BOLI spokesman Charlie Burr told the Gazette-Times that the question hinges on whether the writers were free-lancers or regular employees.
“Our agency does not have jurisdiction to address wage issues if it’s a contract issue,” Burr said. “If they were truly independent contractors, then they would need to file in civil court.”
Singer said he and others have considered filing suit in small claims court but doubt they’d ever be able to collect.
“I said something to (Schultz) about it,” Singer said. “And he said, ‘Well, I’ll just declare bankruptcy and start over — and you’ll get nothing.’”
At this point, the former staffers say, they don’t really expect they’ll ever be paid in full for the work they did at the Corvallis Advocate. They put up with late payments as long as they did because they believed in the paper’s mission and wanted to be a part of it.
But in the end, they said, the long string of broken promises left them disillusioned with the Advocate’s publisher.
“None of us expected to make a lot of money,” Singer said. “We believe it’s a good thing for the community. But for a lot of us, it’s just not worth it if we’re not going to get paid.”