Several months ago we covered the groundbreaking suit that NFL cheerleaders brought against their teams for wage and hour violations. But as it turns out (as Slate.com puts it), cheerleading “isn’t the only job where an employer treats you like you should be paying him for the privilege of being ogled by men you’d usually ignore in your off-hours.” Strip clubs also exploit loopholes in labor law to chronically underpay dancers or even charge women for the “access” to working in their club. And last week, a judge awarded $10 million in back pay to strippers who dance at Rick’s Cabaret in New York City, opening the door for more judgments in favor of these workers in months and years to come.
Reporters with CBS News spoke to the dancers’ lawyer, E. Michelle Drake, who explained how the club exploited her clients (and of course those dancers are the very reason customers patronize the clubs in the first place). The workers received no steady wages, and in fact had to pay a fee to the club to perform there and make tips from customers. Customers then paid up to $20 for each personal dance, and fees starting at $100 for 15 minutes of entertainment in semi-private rooms.
However, after paying club fees and sharing tips with DJs and other club workers, the dancers would often find themselves in the red. “There is a real mythology of the wealthy stripper who has made piles of money,” Drake explained. “People see all the money that the customers give to the dancers. What they don’t see is all the money going back from the entertainer to the club.”
Work in strip clubs comes with high levels of social stigma in our society, making it difficult for workers to stand up for themselves, and easier for employers to exploit them. Clubs cover up these practices classifying dancers as “independent contractors” – treating the strip club like a marketplace such as a local farmers market – where strippers are merchants paying fees for the opportunity to hawk their wares. As such, dancers are expected to cover all the costs of hair, clothing, fitness, and cosmetics, as with NFL cheerleaders. Yet despite being labeled as “independent contractors,” dancers often have very little real independence and are subject to scheduling whims and dress codes of each establishment, such as mandatory 4-inch stilettos.
Fortunately, U.S District Judge Paul Engelmayer saw this as a raw deal, noting that the strippers are workers and as such they are at least owed the minimum wage. He also ruled that clubs cannot enforce “performance fees”—the payment a customer gives women for lap dances—as “an offset to its statutory wage obligations.”
Yet the legal violations characterizing the strip club industry are not limited to the points cited in this lawsuit. Three other clubs in New York recently agreed to settle out of court for $4.3 million following a similar dispute in October. An additional suit in which bartenders have joined the strippers in their suit against the club, is being settled in Missouri. Unfortunately, as Anna Merlan argued in the Village Voice last year, a good number of strippers do not feel optimistic that these lawsuits will substantially change things. The “general consensus with these lawsuits is that the management usually devises a way to twist them to their advantage,” Merlan writes, noting testimony from strippers who say their management always finds creative ways to pocket the cash customers thought they were giving directly to the strippers. Perhaps the scale and visibility surrounding this latest lawsuit will finally wake them up; indeed, their wage theft and other workplace violations are squarely on the radar of employment attorneys and wage and hour violation attorneys.