Turns out 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: The strip-club industry exploits loopholes in labor law to routinely underpay strippers or even charge women for the opportunity to work in a club. It’s a practice that caused a judge to award $10 million in back pay to strippers who worked for Rick’s Cabaret in New York City, and leave open the possibility for even more judgments in favor of the workers in the future.
CBS News talked to the dancers’ lawyer, E. Michelle Drake, who described how the club exploited her clients—who are the reason the customers are there in the first place:
The dancers got no steady wages, instead paying a fee to the club to perform there and in return getting paid by customers. The customers put up $20 for each personal dance and fees starting at $100 for 15 minutes of entertainment in semi-private rooms.
But after paying club fees and required tips to deejays and other club workers, the dancers sometimes ended up in the red, Drake said.
“There is a real mythology of the wealthy stripper who has made piles of money,” she said by phone Friday. “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.”
Stripping is a highly stigmatized job in our society, which makes it hard for workers to stand up for themselves and easy for employers to exploit them. The way clubs get away with this is by classifying the dancers as “independent contractors,” as if the strip club is a marketplace, like your local farmers market, and the strippers are merchants who pay a small fee for the opportunity to hawk their wares. Because of this, like with NFL cheerleaders, the dancers shoulder all the costs of hair, clothing, fitness, and makeup demands. Despite being classified as “independent contractors,” dancers often find they have very little actual independence and are subject to managers’ scheduling whims and dress codes, like mandatory 4-inch high heels.
Luckily, U.S District Judge Paul Engelmayer found that this was a raw deal, writing that the strippers are workers and, as workers, are owed at least minimum wage. He also said that the club cannot use “performance fees”—the money a customer pays the women for lap dances—as “an offset to its statutory wage obligations.”
The legal grievances against the strip club industry are hardly limited to this lawsuit. Three other strip clubs in New York City settled out of court for $4.3 million over a similar dispute in October. Another suit, with bartenders joining the strippers in suing the club, is being settled in Missouri. Unfortunately, as Anna Merlan of the Village Voice reported last year, many strippers are skeptical that all these lawsuits will really change things. The “general consensus with these lawsuits is that the management usually finds a way to twist them to their advantage,” Merlan writes, citing strippers who believe management is always looking for creative ways to abscond with the money the customers think they are giving to the strippers directly. Perhaps the size and publicity around this latest lawsuit will scare some sense into them.