Reader: I’m a freelance writer struggling to get paid for a project I completed. The people who originally hired me have been let go. I’m dealing with a new executive who seems to be trying to intimidate me. She’s asked for a detailed breakdown of my fee (I was hired for a project rate), asked if I have a “contract for hire” (the original people never offered me one) and said my finished work was “unusable” (I was never asked for revisions after submitting this project, and no clients in 22 years have ever said that). I have emails indicating that I was asked to take on the project at X rate.

What recourse do I have, aside from spending money to have a lawyer send a stern note on letterhead, which this new CEO might ignore? My only weapon seems to be shaming the company on social media.

Karla: I’m surprised that after two decades of freelancing, you don’t regularly insist on a signed contract and that this is the first time you’ve gotten stung for it.

Employment lawyer Amy Epstein Gluck, a partner with FisherBroyles, says having a contract is the best insurance against this type of situation — but your email record may show that you had “at least a ‘quasi-contractual’ relationship” with the CEO’s predecessors, which may be binding for the company. So your best weapon is the one you dismissed: Have an attorney make your case in a demand letter no smart CEO can afford to ignore.

And stay off TwitFaceInstaLinked. As Epstein Gluck points out, publicly attacking a client could expose you to defamation charges and harm your prospects with future clients.

Reader: For a few months, my 20-year-old son worked evenings as a busboy and dishwasher. It was a small restaurant: my son, the cook and the proprietor. Every paycheck he received bounced, and the proprietor has not made good on them. My son is shy and feels bad for the place — business is bad. But he wants his money! He didn’t keep exact records of hours worked but can roughly reconstruct them.

Karla: Your son should (1) gather any check stubs, bank records of the bounced checks or other evidence of what he’s owed and (2) file a no-cost complaint with the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division . It may take months, but unpaid wages are a hot-button topic with the Labor Department, Epstein Gluck says.

If he’s not ready to sic the government on a struggling business owner, he can request via certified mail that the owner pay him his back wages within a short grace period, after which he will file with the DOL. If he really feels bad, he can deliver the letter in person.

And in future, the first time a paycheck bounces, it’s a sign he should, too.

Ask Karla Miller about your work dramas and traumas by emailing wpmagazine@washpost.com. Read more @Work Advice columns.

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