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Background: I am a former web developer professional who never earned a degree. I developed medical issues that were originally thought to be life altering and enrolled in a college to complete a degree while sorting the medical issues to avoid a large resume gap. During the past year, I was granted contract work with a non-profit organization (they found me through the college). I've been working with the organization for about 9-10 months now.

Given that I am considered a student, I have been grossly underpaid. I initially accepted this due to the fact that I was originally facing hard times. During my time with this organization I conceptualized an internal idea for a web application. I am not the original inventor, but I brought the concept to life. The non-profit asked me to provide an estimate of the amount of hours it would take to build a system like the concept. The problem was - I truly had no idea how to estimate how long this would take as it was a hugely complex system that I would have to learn many new techniques in order to build.

Fast forward to now, the non-profit has received the funding to complete this project by a big name organization (you would know the name and it could be a huge resume booster for me as I'm planning return to the workforce in the coming months), but only to cover the amount of hours I originally specified. Additionally, they also generated this print out of the amount of hours allotted to each "task" that I'm forced to adhere to. Some of these "tasks" have more meat on the bone than when they were originally presented. They want to pay me US$20,000 for a year and a half of what would be full stack web development work that would easily take me 30+ hours a week. The majority of the weeks on the project they only want to pay me about 10-15 hours. They also want me to sign some sort of contract that extends beyond that time period which says I am a "contractor." The reality is, I'm working to move on from this organization and I do not feel comfortable signing anything that says I am involved with them for more than a six month period of time.

The non-profit paired me with a "mentor" (a connection of theirs that is a tech lead at a corporation), but the non-profit isn't aware, that due to my experience, this "mentor" is actually more of a "peer." I shared all of this with the "mentor/peer" and she has disclosed that she feels I am being grossly underpaid for this project (hourly rate) and shares my concern that the estimates given to complete the tasks could be incorrect in a few different areas because of the sheer complexity of the project.

She also said that it is sometimes very hard to give an estimate on allotted time for programming that is this complex. This "mentor/peer" came into the picture months after I submitted this so-called estimate (or really guesstimate) of hours. The "mentor/peer" now feels strongly that I am being taken advantage of and that I need to get out of this situation after finishing this high profile project, or even before. She says even with the employment detour, my skills are enough to definitely land a full-time paying job with benefits in web development.

I tried to approach my boss about what do we do if the time required to complete a specific task exceeds the hours available. I don't get much of an answer other than I need to stay within the budgeted time.

I will say that a big problem in working for this organization is that I have done so much overtime for them in the past without pay. In all past cases, I wasn't even asked for a time estimate. They only were willing to pay me for 10 hours a week, and after months of doing this, I had to ask for additional hourly pay each week. It wasn't nearly enough to cover the time I spent on the tasks, but it was something (five additional hours per week).

I also tried to discuss signing a shorter contract with my boss - as our past contracts were only in six month increments, and he just kept trying to twist my arm to agree to a yearlong agreement instead.

At the end of the day, what I'd like to do is get the shorter (six month) contract I want, and to be fairly compensated. How would I go about writing an email to my boss that says that this is what I'd like to achieve? Do you have any other thoughts/tips for me in navigating this situation? I understand that I am in the wrong for the initial incorrect estimate of time.

It is also not a money issue. During my time with this organization we've grown from a researcher (another coworker) and a developer (me) to having another researcher at 40 hours a week, and now my boss is talking about bringing on another research staff member. The issue is, the 40 hour a week staffer is making zero contributions to our database, wherein the first researcher is still making all of the contributions - there isn't the need for another research professional. That money could be allocated to paying me fairly.

So basically - I'm grossly underpaid, but it's more important to hire more people who are unnecessary than it is to pay me fairly, yet my boss keeps alluding to the fact that they wouldn't be able to do what they are doing with this new application, and other aspects of this project, without me. Perhaps I should be just running screaming from these people?

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    It's a bit difficult to see the issue, you say you're grossly underpaid, but also not qualified or competent to do the work without extensive training?
    – Kilisi
    Jul 7 at 5:38
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    Just realized... You say the nonprofit found you through the college. It sounds like they had a goal from the outset to find someone fairly novice and easy to manipulate, and are grooming you into this expectation with this "considering you a student" bit you mention. Resume gap does not matter, experience and skills are experience and skills.
    – schizoid04
    Jul 7 at 6:23
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    "I can't sign this" is a perfectly valid answer. I know there is a mental barrier for current employees when asked something by their employer but you as an individual are under zero obligation to enter into a further contract with anyone at any time. The worst they can do is fire you but to get to that stage they have to do a reality check of why this reasonable person is drawing a line in the sand over this. Hopefully that reality check creates the conversation you are hoping for.
    – Myles
    Jul 7 at 14:01
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    The question is a long core dump, and it's very difficult to figure out what the basic issue is.
    – user14026
    Jul 7 at 18:10
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    Why hasn't this been asked: Location? A lot of where you are determines the what about contract you sign is legally binding... Like... just because you sign a 2 year contract doesn't mean they can't fire you before 2 years are up. And that you can't quit before those 2 years are up. So much of this sounds unenforceable but local laws seem very VERY pertinent to this discussion.
    – WernerCD
    Jul 7 at 22:20

10 Answers 10

105

You should absolutely leave.

I wouldn't recommend signing anything that has language in it putting responsibilities past the next few months if you don't feel you want to be around past then.

First and foremost... Stop giving overtime for free. This is in everybody's best interest. They have a legal obligation to pay you and you are just creating a liability for them in doing this, while getting little in return for it. There's legal ramifications on them, and there very well could be for you as well - If you muck up something in their system on time that you're not on the clock, do you want any kind of question coming up about whether you were doing so... out of performance of your job duties, that you weren't getting paid for? Are you somehow liable because you weren't being paid for the work you did, therefore it wasn't part of your job for that day? (Silly argument I know, but this could be a thing in some places).

Imagine you are injured while at work. Your normal workday ends at 5pm, but you've injured yourself at 7pm. You haven't billed the company for any overtime at the end of the week. The company may be able to make a claim that your injury is not a valid workers comp claim because it did not happen during the course of your employment there - and your timesheet is record of this. So... Just a thought, don't work for free.

Unfortunately, many nonprofits I've seen rely more on manipulating employees and guilt tripping them into accepting low pay and other poor working conditions... sometimes solely under the guise of 'its a nonprofit, they must not have any money'.

Additionally... Trust your gut if something in the contract feels off. If you don't like the wording or phrasing of it, do not sign it. Your manager or anyone else shrugging it off as 'boilerplate' or 'Oh, that just means x'.... It means what it says on the paper; and companies do sue each other and people all the time over contract disputes. They sometimes don't need to... if the paper says it, and there's a dispute later, they may try to use it to manipulate you into letting them take money from you in some way.

Personally i think the situation you're in is awful regarding the pay and what they're trying to rope you into. I would recommend finding somewhere else and leaving when able. Of course it can be difficult depending on circumstances to find a new role... But i would recommend not signing anything that requires or somehow coerces you into staying longer than you currently would like to.

Also! And when you leave - be firm that you're leaving. Your manager will likely try everything they can to convince you to stay. If you don't want to give notice, or only want 2 weeks, be firm on it. Assume everything they say from the moment you tell them you're leaving, is absolute bullspit.

Because it's your manager's job to manage... you. If lying to you and dangling a bonus 18 months in the future that never materializes, worth 85% of your normal pay, is what it will take to get you to finish the project, they very well will tell you that's what you're getting, and wait for the problem to rear up later on, when magically none of it's in writing and the company is suddenly having budget issues or your manager shifted to the next department and vice versa so they can start the same thing over but with roles changed etc.

They may say oh the team can't work without you, oh it's so unprofessional not to give us 3 months of notice... It's all garbage. If so, they allowed the company to reach a state where something critical rested on a single person who was underpaid and treated thusly.

So - When you're ready to leave, leave, and don't trust a single thing they say to try and convince or scare you into staying. If they try to strong arm you and use some kind of fear tactics grab the name of an attorney online and/or just say Well I am leaving, you will have to forward that issue to my attorney. bye.

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    "dangling a bonus 18 months in the future that never materializes" - very much agree here. Only believe what they give you now, or possibly what they put in writing in a signed contract (though be very careful in reading how that any such contract is worded, they may lay many traps for you so they can avoid keeping any promises set to mature in the future). They've been rather crafty so far, expect them to continue in the same manner. Jul 7 at 13:49
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    And do not give reasons or justifications when you write your resignation letter. Now for this letter there are nice boilerplate documents that make absolutely perfect sense. Jul 8 at 8:14
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    +1 for bolded "do not sign anything". You're never forced to sign whatever, and just don't do it if it's not in your advantage.
    – Pac0
    Jul 8 at 12:37
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    Learning to say no to bad contracts is a skill that one doesn't develop until they have experienced being stuck in a bad one they didn't think enough on before signing 😂😳🥺
    – schizoid04
    Jul 8 at 13:10
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    I selected this comment as the correct answer. The luck of the situation was that I brought up my issues w/my employer and they've agreed to the contract duration and wage which I desired. While I am doing this work, I am working on transitioning to new employment. Thank you all for your feedback and support!!! To anyone else in a situation like this - if they are unwilling to pay you a fair or unlivable wage, LEAVE!
    – Julie S
    Jul 26 at 22:58
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If you get treated like a contractor, behave like one. You name the terms that are acceptable to you, and otherwise you don't sign. If you don't want to sign for a long period, but only a short period, you say exactly that. If they want to pay you a very low X, you treat that as a negotiation tactic. Tell them all the risks you have to take, and name your high Y.

Also, do not mention the situation of the unproductive researcher. That has nothing to do with you. Your skills have a certain market price, and you simply expect the fair market price. Nothing more, nothing less.

In this place, they kind of treated you as a very convenient mix of regular employee (cheap - in your case way too cheap) and contractor (off loading risks to you and without paying you extra for that).

With 99% likelihood, they got so used to treating you badly, that they won't accept that. In that case: don't sign. Do something else.

You should start searching for something else before you have that conversation. This will help to improve your mental preparedness to walk away.

As far as I am reading, you don't have a gap because you did your studies, right? So when you apply somewhere, you simply tell them that you wanted to improve your theoretical underpinnings to your existing practical knowledge, and that you still did normal work on the side.

Hopefully your medical issues are resolved by now, and you can simply omit them.

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    Definitely agreed about not mentioning the unproductive researcher. Many non-profits operate on grants, and those grants often come with specific restrictions on what they can be used to fund. It's very possible that the researcher is being paid from a grant like that where the funds just can't be reallocated to someone in the OP's role.
    – Bobson
    Jul 7 at 17:58
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    I think behaving like a contractor is poor advice, it only makes the OP more responsible for the unrealistic estimate. If anything, I think she should behave more like an employee, as in "pay me the market rate for my job, or I quit". Jul 10 at 9:59
  • @DmitryGrigoryev, behaving like a contractor means charging $600 a day. For every day worked. As a contractor you sign a contract, and as a contractor you don't sign a contract that is totally one-sided.
    – gnasher729
    Jul 10 at 11:10
  • @gnasher729 Exactly, and I don' think that starting to charge $600 a day is a viable choice here. It will be the equivalent of simply quitting. Plus, admitting you're a contractor opens you to legal troubles which the employee status protects against. E.g. it's almost always illegal to stop paying an employee. Jul 12 at 13:09
  • Dmitri, willing to accept a contract as a contractor doesn’t mean you are a contractor now.
    – gnasher729
    Jul 13 at 7:25
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In addition to what shizoid04 has said, contractors can expect a lot less in benefits than employees. No paid annual leave. No pension contributions. No other subsidised benefits, such as healthcare.

A contractor is also contractually obliged to deliver what they say they will.

For that reason, contractors expect to be paid substantially more than permanent staff. Maybe 2 to 3 times as much in the software industry.

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    10X on short stint projects with huge workloads and tight deliveries. Heck, if you have to add VAT and operational expenses, 10X is not really cutting it for some projects. Also if those contracts have non-compete clauses at the end or add huge fines for late deliveries, it may not be worth to take the contract even at those rates.
    – BoboDarph
    Jul 7 at 11:35
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    Also, be sure you understand the difference between a fixed-price contract (contractor assumes all risk) and a time-and-materials contract (client assumes the risk of schedule overrun). They're trying to force you into the former, based on the original estimate of hours.
    – Dave Tweed
    Jul 9 at 11:41
  • "A contractor is also contractually obliged to deliver what they say they will." that's totally wrong.
    – Fattie
    Jul 10 at 13:55
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I understand that this is your question:

what I'd like to do is get the shorter (6 month) contract I want, and to be fairly compensated. How would I go about writing an email to my boss that says that this is what I'd like to achieve?

Other answers, which are (as of this writing) aimed more at speaking to your general situation rather than this specific question, have covered the reasons why you should be leaving the company. They're right, of course. You should be mentally/financially/otherwise prepared to leave.

So, how do you ask for what you want in this scenario? Generally speaking, the way to go about writing this email is to do your research, state facts, and ignore irrelevancies. Perhaps something along the following outline:

Dear [Boss],

In order to achieve project objectives X, Y and Z, it will be necessary to deploy technologies A and B. In working through requirements I've concluded that successful implementation of this project by [company] would require resources along the line of [salary/hours/qualifications required to hire a developer/contractor externally - this will be higher than your desired compensation].

In order to take on this project, I'd like [compensation desired]. I won't be signing the contract for [contract offered].

[Preferred closing]

Julie S

Some notes on things that you won't mention:

  • Your thoughts on other employees' compensation or work product. This is none of your business, and your employers don't care what you think on this subject.
  • Your initial estimate. First of all, these always grow, and unless this company had you produce thoroughly documented workflows, process maps, mockups, etc., they had no business relying on your "guesstimate" in grant proposals. Secondly, as far as they knew you were a novice student in this domain, so had no reason to believe that your "guesstimate" would be a good one. It's absolutely comical that they asked you for an estimate of total hours spent for a massive, complex project, used it to obtain grant funding, then brought in a mentor to work/advise under the parameters of your "guesstimate".
  • Your unpaid OT to date. I didn't get the impression from your question that you thought this was worth bringing up, but I wanted to specifically caution you against thinking of wielding it as a negotiation tactic. As covered in other answers, don't mention it at all.
  • Whether you or anyone else thinks you are being or have been taken advantage of.
  • What the company's options are if they should choose not to accept your requested compensation. This is not your business either. Presumably they have highly competent executives handling strategy and planning. Those people are qualified to make these decisions. You are qualified to make decisions about your life.

At this point in your relationship with this organization, you've determined that you won't be accepting the extension they've offered you. You've determined what compensation you would consider acceptable, given your position in the job market. If they want you to do the project, they now know what it will take. If not, you serve out the remainder of your present contract, performing duties as assigned and within the time constraints as spelled out in the contract.

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So lots of answers here have told you that you shouldn't sign the a contract for less compensation than you are comfortable with. Doubly true since you suspect that your guestimates were short of the time it will actually take. I agree with that advice completely. However - I suspect it will be a waste of time to negotiate.

You say;

It is also not a money issue. During my time with this organization we've grown from a researcher (another co-worker) and a developer (me) to having another researcher at 40 hours a week, and now my boss is talking about bringing on another research staff member.

but funding in the not-for-profit sector rarely works like that. For a charity large enough to pay developers, probably about 1/3 of their income is unstipulated (not ringfenced), most of that goes on overheads like paying rent, paying insurance, paying postage. Some salaries will come out of unstipulated funds, but they will be the ones that it is nearly impossible to fundraise for (lawyers, fundraisers, accountants etc.). The other researcher is likely paid by a specific grant, designated for that developers pay, which cannot go towards anything else.

When the charity foolishly relied on your estimate to make their grant application, they went to a donor and said something like;

Please would you pay for the development of this app. The app will do X, Y and Z, it will be a massive help to our cause. It will only cost £too-small-guestimate to produce. If you pay for it we will put your name on it.

The donor agreed, because it seemed like a great deal. They gave the charity the money on the condition that;

  1. It was spent on the app - charity must give it back if they cannot make the app.
  2. And likely also; Nobody else gets credit for this app - this app will say sponsored by big generous donor. So no other funding will come in for it.

The charity was stupid, they promised things they cannot provide. They probably cannot get more money though, and they will probably need to give back what they have got so far. You just need to be super blunt about the fact that you won't agree to those terms because you believe some estimates may be overly ambitious. You can try to negotiate, but I strongly suspect the charity have nothing to offer. Probably just consider this a dead-end.


Edit; whether or not the charity might go back to the donor and ask for more money depends on what category of donor they are. If it's a trust or foundation, then it's not likely. If it's an individual major donor then maybe, depending on their relationship with that donor.

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Only you can stand up for yourself.

You are "a former web developer professional who never earned a degree", but if you have the equivalent skills of someone who has a relevant degree, and can produce quality software, you should be able to find something that pays $80K to $150K per year in the U.S., with benefits, depending on where you live. You didn't say what your new degree is in, hopefully it's in a relevant domain.

Stop working for free.
All you get is "Thank you". Stop volunteering overtime.
At 30 hours per week for 50 weeks per year, $20,000 per year amounts to $13.33/hour.
Or if you're working 12 hours per week on average, that's $33.33/hour. Minus taxes.

Don't sign anything without having a trusted friend look it over. If your boss pressures you, let him know that you take signing contracts seriously and want to review it with a lawyer friend. If you don't like what the contract says, do not sign it. Once you sign it, it means you voluntarily entered into this contract, with all the rights and obligations that it spells out. You can draw out not signing a contract for as long as they need you to code.

Your best course of action is to line something up that pays market rate for your skills. Just update your LinkedIn profile, and connect with recruiters. Within a period of time, maybe a few weeks or maybe 2 to 3 months, you will have a written offer that you like. Then give the non-profit 2 weeks notice. After that, the rest is not your problem. They will find someone else.

You owe them quality work and some amount of loyalty while they pay you. If their funding fell through they would let you go.

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  • +1 esp. for "You can draw out not signing a contract for as long as they need you to code". Jul 12 at 1:38
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Here's (what it seems to me) the core of the issue: you gave your employer an unrealistic estimate of the work to be done, and they are planning to pay you based on that estimate. Now you realize there's more work than initially planned, and the money they are planning to pay you is not enough to compensate you fairly for this work.

While giving a wrong estimate is, well, bad, it's not something extraordinary, and there's absolutely no reason for you as an employee to pay the price of this mistake by working underpaid for a year. Your employer is responsible for the project, not you.

Things are different when you are a contractor: those people are actually paid above market rate, because they are responsible for the product they promise to deliver and take the associated risks on them.

With that in mind:

  • check the paperwork you have signed so far. If your contract specifies the time you have to spend on the job, you're an employee. If the contract specifies things you have to deliver by a certain date, you're a contractor. It's more complex in reality of course, but that's the gist of it, and you should know that simply calling you a "contractor" has little legal standing in determining your status.

  • don't sign any new agreement, especially those that call you a "contractor" and go beyond the 6-month period you're comfortable with.

  • signing a new contract is the perfect opportunity to revise your hourly rate. It might feel awkward or impolite to ask for more money out of the blue. You'll have to simply shake off that feeling and ask to be paid the money you deserve.

In the end, it's in everyone's best interest that you let the non-profit know you made a mistake in your estimates ASAP. Even if it was your mistake, it's their job to correct it (by asking for additional funding or reducing the planned activities to match the money they have). As a novice employee being paid way below the market rate, you have little to worry about, you still did a great job for the money you got so far, and it's unlikely your employer will find you a replacement for the money you ask for. If they fire you or refuse to give you a raise and let you walk away, it will be a pure loss for them and most probably it will result in the termination of the project.

If your employer insists you're a contractor and therefore should stick to the promises, you may want to consult a lawyer. It's very likely you're either not legally a contractor, or your contract will be found abusive and therefore invalid.

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Well, your situation is a very common one. The solution is very much based on your jurisdiction and your self-confidence. In European jurisdictions your situation is plainly illegal, so you can have it redressed in a labour court quite easily, same in the UK through the IR35 legislation.

The other part, the self-confidence, applies in any jurisdiction: just face them and clarify that you'd love to be on the project, your knowledge of the work done til now is invaluable to them, so they have to pay you properly or you walk. Plain and simple.

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I suggest that you share your concerns with the non-profit. As in share a link to this page.

I hope that during the time you've worked there that you have build up a relationship, trust and proven your skills that combined with your concerns should be enough to start a conversation with them about how to proceed.

If you try that and the response is not what you wanted, then consider yourself a contractor. In that case you could change game completely by just giving them your hourly rate and give them rough estimates which you ensure they understand as rough estimates.

If you cant agree on something that makes sense to you - leave!

-3

Year and a half @ 30 hours a week. 2,340 hours. $40 an hour is junior rate (and a livable wage). $90k for the project, take it or leave it. If they don’t like it, their next best option is probably a consulting company who will charge $200 an hour per developer…or maybe an experienced contract dev, at $100 an hour… or offshore, which is a total crapshoot. Point is, you’re their best option.

If they don’t bite, good riddance, go get you a 6 figure job, there’s no shortage of them when you’re a developer with some experience.

Web application developer average pay: https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/web-application-developer-salary-SRCH_KO0,25.htm

Consulting rates: https://www.fullstacklabs.co/blog/software-development-price-guide-hourly-rate-comparison https://www.cleveroad.com/blog/software-consulting-rates

Offshore risks https://www.quora.com/Why-isnt-all-software-development-outsourced-to-countries-with-much-lower-labour-costs-Are-offshore-developers-less-able-Is-it-a-communication-issue-Would-the-performance-of-an-offshore-developer-dramatically-increase-if-you-gave-them-a-H1B-visa

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    is this merely your opinion or you can back it up somehow?
    – gnat
    Jul 22 at 15:23
  • aren't we being asked for our opinions? Jul 23 at 17:06

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