My Experience with Upwork’s Mediation Process

About a month ago, I ended up in Upwork’s mediation process. A client had decided they didn’t want to pay and the only other option beyond mediation was to forgo the cash.

For those not familiar with Upwork’s freelancer platform, set-fee contracts (versus hourly) are set up so that the client pays Upwork when the contract is initially agreed upon, and then the freelancer requests the money be released to their bank account once the work is complete. A client can release or deny the payment, or if they don’t do either after 14 days, the money is released to the freelancer automatically.

For the most part, I love Upwork’s system. While I don’t love giving the platform a sometimes-up-to-20% cut of my earnings, I do love that I’ve found tons of amazing clients through Upwork, including several household names, and, over the last several years, I’ve made more than $100k there.

But my mediation process via Upwork was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had as a freelancer and, since I found absolutely zero info on Upwork’s mediation process to help me along through it all, I decided to share my experience to hopefully help other freelancers after me.

The Set-Up

Here’s how it all came to be.

I had agreed to write a series of 12 web pages for a travel client getting ready to launch a new website. It was a small, one-off job. Nothing major.

I wrote an initial one page for the client, so they could give feedback. They liked the work, so I went on with another 9 pages, which they also praised. At that point, the client said they wanted to change the scope of the project, adding some additional content and work. They asked if I’d accept an additional fee for the additional work and I agreed. All was going well.

Then, unfortunately, things went south. I told the client I would begin the additional work once their invoice for the completed 10 pages was paid, but the client disagreed. They claimed that if they paid for the work completed, there was nothing to hold me to later completing the additional work agreed upon, other than my word. In order for them to pay anything, I had to complete all of the work they wanted, with no end in sight.

Now, any freelancer who’s been in the business even just a year would see this as a giant red flag. This is just bad news. You wouldn’t tell the cashier at McDonald’s that you’re not going to pay them for today’s Big Mac until you come in for a Big Mac tomorrow, because you’re worried that if you pay them today, they won’t serve you tomorrow. So why would you say that to a freelancer, unless you were trying to just not pay?

After going back and forth with the client a few times, they became hostile, saying I was trying to bully them into getting more money and that I was untrustworthy (I guess my Top Rated status on Upwork and my extensive portfolio says nothing). So, I suggested we take the contract to mediation.

Upwork’s Mediation Process

I had never used Upwork’s mediation process, so I didn’t know what to expect and, as noted, I couldn’t really find any info on it online.

Basically, though, Upwork pairs you with an on-staff mediator who asks for both sides of the story and then speaks with you both together (via a chatroom-style, private complaint board) and separately. My client refused to speak directly with me at that point, so I never quite knew what he told the mediator. However, I gave her the story above, along with screenshots and copies of the work completed. I also stressed to her how anxiety-inducing and stressful the situation had been for me and how terribly the client had behaved compared to all of the professional interactions I’ve always had on Upwork. My end goal, she asked? Simply to get the money owed and then never have to speak to the individual again.

Over the course of the month, the mediator went back and forth between myself and the client. Unfortunately, the mediator explained, Upwork’s mediation process can’t exactly weigh in favor of either party; instead, they’re there to facilitate a mutual agreement. And the only agreement they could offer me? The client would pay 50% of his invoice, Upwork would pay 30% of the invoice as a sign of good faith, and then the client would be permitted to leave a public review on my Upwork profile.

I declined. Why would I want someone who calls me untrustworthy and a bully leaving me a public review? The mediator said their hands were tied, and the best Upwork could do for me as a Top Rated freelancer was that 30%. If I didn’t want the client to leave a review, I would have to pay the client back for every project I’d ever completed for them in the past, above simply canceling their due invoice.

The Twist

It was then that Upwork’s automated payment process came through for me. Since the problematic client had neither denied nor approved his invoice, after 14 days, the full payment was released to my bank account. I had 100% of my money. But that’s when the mediator came in and asked me if I would consider refunding 50% of the money back to the client. I again declined. What benefit would that be to me, I asked her. She had no answer.

So, I kept the money, closed the contract, and now wait to see if the client will leave a review. My guess is, no, as the client never responded to the mediator after his initial offer of 50%, and so the case was dismissed.

The Problem

And while all ended well with this mediation process, the main problem is this — Upwork was not on my side as the freelancer. Freelancers are what keep Upwork in business. We give Upwork a chunk of our cash. Without freelancers, Upwork would go under. Yet, Upwork consistently behaves as if that’s not the case.

Yes, I’ll still continue using Upwork, because it accounts for a large source of my income.

But am I at all disillusioned as to where Upwork’s loyalty lies? No. When working with Upwork, it never pays to assume the platform is on your side.

Holly Riddle is a freelance travel, lifestyle and food journalist and copywriter who dabbles in fiction. She can be reached at holly.ridd@gmail.com. Her website is hollyriddle.org and her Twitter handle is @TheHollyRiddle.

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