In most jobs as an independent contractor (or independent escort) you take on a lot of personal responsibility and tend to work on your own terms independently (hence the name). Working for a strip club usually involves a lot more rules, regulations and schedules set by the club, as well as out of pocket expenses that can make a big difference at the end of the night. None the less, clubs across the country consider dancers 'independent' and do not pay any wages or provide any benefits such as health care or time off.
Here's one case of the truth playing out in court:
The reality of dancing in a club looks a lot less like independent contracting and a lot more like employee status when put under a microscope -- actually, just putting it on paper was enough. And that's what Judge Paul Engelmayer ruled in this class action lawsuit, finding in part that "plaintiffs were employees of Rick’s NY and that Rick’s NY’s statutory duty to pay minimum wages was not satisfied by the plaintiffs’ receipt of performance fees." Therefore, the court found the plaintiffs are due back wages and damages. You can read the entire 65 page decision right here: Sabrina Hart et al v. Rick's Cabaret International Inc., No. 09cv3043, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
What does this decision mean for the ladies of Rick's NY and dancers working in clubs across the country?
The repercussions of this lawsuit are not trivial. More than 1,900 plaintiffs who worked at Rick's NY since 2005 are covered under the 2009 lawsuit, which includes claims based on state and federal labor law, seeking both back wages and damages which could exceed $5 million (via XBIZ: Rick's NY Must Pay Its Dancers Minimum Wage, Judge Rules and Strip club must pay its performers minimum wage: Judge)
The dancer plaintiffs "alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the New York Labor Law, as well as unlawful retention of gratuities and unlawful deduction of wages by imposing fines...In their contention that they were employees as defined by law, the strippers said that club management regulated almost every aspect of their behavior within the club."
Rick's NY's management countered that the dancers were more like independent contractors than employees. They asserted that any control exercised by the company was "minimal" and for their safety as opposed to being for the monetary benefit of the club, but U.S. District Judge Engelmayer refuted this claim. He wrote:
"On their face, the club’s guidelines reflect the exercise of tight control, indeed, control fairly described as micromanagement, by Rick’s over the dancers... Rules such as those setting the length of a dancer’s dress, the height of her shoe, the meetings she was required to attend, the entrances she was allowed to enter, the amount of money she was required to tip-out at the end of each night, or her use of chewing gum or stiletto heels, and many more, were neither mandated by state or federal law, nor justified on grounds of workplace safety... Rather, they helped Rick’s NY achieve its business ends."
Rick's attorneys disagree with the decision and intend to appeal. The parent company has an entirely different perspective coming from the corporate level (emphasis mine):
"It is hard to imagine how these entertainers should be paid at the minimum wage, which would amount to a fraction of the $1,000 or more that some of them acknowledged they earned in a single night."
This particular case has been going on for over four years and although an appeal is looming, a precedent is being set in other parts of the country as well.
"The standard is that you have to pay to work as a stripper."
In most strip clubs "independent contractor" status is the norm and many dancers work with similar arrangements to those described in the Rick's case. Strippers around the country have been speaking out about being mis-labeled as independent contractors and judges have agreed with them in multiple instances within the last year alone.
In a case from April, "a group of 1,245 dancers at the New York City based Penthouse Executive Club reached an $8 million preliminary settlement with the club over unpaid wages; the settlement is awaiting a judge's approval."
Similar cases have already gone through other states' courts. In February, "the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that dancers at Club Orleans in Topeka were employees rather than contractual talent. It granted them the right to collect unemployment insurance." And another from last November, "strippers at the Spearmint Rhino chain in California won a $13 million settlement in a federal court class action case that granted them employee status. The settlement amount will be divided among strippers across six states. "We've seen a lot of great rulings like these," said Shannon Liss-Riordan, an attorney who specializes in labor cases." (via CNN Money March 2013, Strippers vs. clubs in fight over labor rights)
When the law takes a look at the reality of dancers' experiences with stage fees, schedules, rules, regulations, and required tip outs and no benefits, the real status of dancers as workers is revealed.
Employees, unions, co-ops and the future of dancing:
On a related note, we are sad and sentimental to see the first unionized strip club, the Lusty Lady in San Francisco, closing its doors just this month. The concept of a worker owned co-operative strip club was born on hope, but now it seems official worker status and rights may be coming from a different avenue: in the courts. But what will this look like in the corporate owned clubs and when will they (be forced to) come around?
"Nowadays, the Lusty Lady's claim to fame is as the only unionized, worker-owned peepshow co-op in the world, but that's relatively recent; the fight to unionize the Lusty's dancers was won in 1997. In 2003, the workers themselves bought out the management and made the theater into a cooperative. The theater's reputation was made long before that."
Could the Rick's case and others like it mean that the future of dancing will come with some real benefits? If dancers continue to stand up for what they deserve, it just might! Share this post with your friends who have worked as dancers in clubs and let's see what happens. Raise your hand (like this post?) if you'd like to see some back wages, reimbursed stage fees, and maybe even health insurance or other benefits from your strip club days. I'll put my name on that class action suit any day.
Even if you've never been a dancer, this case and those like it are examining important aspects of Employment Law. It touches on other types of workers who continue to be misclassified as "independent contractors," thus depriving them of the benefits employees receive.
"Misclassification of workers is one of those labor practices that flies under the radar but that can do significant harm to workers and their communities. And, overall, illegal practices cost U.S. workers $19 billion annually in lost wages and benefits. Good for the workers of Ray's Cabaret for, in at least one case, making sure that their employer can't get away with it." (via US News: Not Stripped of Their Rights)