The hottest trend in the nation’s strip clubs is the dancers suing the pants off their employers. Latest case in point: Rick’s Cabaret, conveniently located right near beautiful scenic Penn Station, and the site of a three-year-long stripper vs. management wage and hour lawsuit. On Tuesday, a federal judge sided with the strippers, ruling that they are employees of the club and deserve to be paid a minimum hourly wage . But will the lawsuit actually make working conditions at the club any more fair? On Stripper Web, a private forum for dancers, the reaction to the Rick’s ruling was highly skeptical. Working strippers have seen these lawsuits before, and they’ve learned to be wary.
A little background: employment lawsuits at strip clubs have become common in the past few years, spurred by the fact that most strip clubs inappropriately classify their dancers as “independent contractors.” It’s a neat trick, a not-exactly-IRS-legal one, that allows the clubs to get away with not paying the dancers minimum wage, overtime, or worker’s comp in the case of injury on the job. But it’s unfair, because the level of control the clubs exert over the dancers is very much “employee,” not “independent contractor.” At Rick’s, for example, dancers were required to wear at least four-inch stilettos, forego body glitter, cover up their tattoos, not chew gum, and, heaven forbid, never wear the same dress two days in a row.
Independent contractor status is just one of a host of sketchy requirements that strip clubs impose on their talent. Like a lot of other clubs, Rick’s, a chain of clubs based in Houston, also charges its dancers “house fees,” an amount they pay just to work (at Rick’s it was reportedly $50 a night). And customers are required to purchase what strippers call “funny money”, in-house Monopoly money that they use to tip their dancers for lap dances, and which the dancers theoretically turn in at the end of their shift for real cash. In practice, many dancers have reported being shorted when it came time for the fake money to be traded out for the real thing. Although each “dance dollar” at Rick’s cost $24, the dancers alleged that they only saw $18 of that.
So three years ago, around 50 women filed a $5 million lawsuit against the club, both for not paying them minimum wage, for unlawfully taking some of their tips, and for charging them various illegal fines and penalties. In ruling in their favor, U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer wrote in part that the Rick’s house rules “regulated almost every aspect of the dancers’ behavior within the Club,” making it clear they were employees. (You can read the full ruling on the next page.)
In a statement, Rick’s CEO Eric Langan told the NYT that Tuesday’s ruling would have “no impact on Rick’s Cabaret New York City, since we changed our independent contractor practices some time ago.” He also said the minimum wage was “a fraction” of the $1000 per night he claimed the dancers at Rick’s take home.
And the dancers on Stripper Web reacted to the news of the Rick’s victory with a heaping handful of salt. “My manager says it won’t change anything,” wrote one New York-based stripper.
“That’s good to hear,” another dancer responded. “Most of the time these settlements make a change for the worse.” The only exceptions, she said, were Deja Vu in San Francisco and Spearmint Rhino in Las Vegas. Deja Vu got rid of all their house fees, while Spearmint Rhino increased the cut of the funny money that the dancers took home.
But the general consensus with these lawsuits is that the management usually finds a way to twist them to their advantage (“Lord knows the managers would probably fuck it up,” as one woman put it). Strippers in Texas experienced similar treatment there (and strip clubs in Dallas are big, big business). Some of the Stripper Web crew worried that the rulings would cut into their take-home pay.
“As discussed in other threads, ’employee’ status / treatment results in more tax revenues being collected from the clubs and dancers, as well as more state unemployment and disability insurance fund revenues being collected from the clubs,” one dancer wrote. “Also, the press coverage once again widely publicizes the fact that some dancers are earning $1,000+ per night … a point which won’t be overlooked by the NY state and city tax agencies!”
There’s a lesson here for strip club-going people, those sensitive souls who want their dancers to be fairly compensated. That lesson: whenever possible, pay them in cash.