Do strippers have employee rights?

Rights, Business, Money, NakedLaw

Recent years have seen the industry of exotic dancing flush with successful lawsuits against international nude cabaret franchises and small clubs alike. Activist dancers in many cities have not only endeavored to organize their peers in litigation against shady bosses, they are working to influence and change labor laws at the state level.

Some of the big wins for strippers in the past few years demonstrates the extent of their efforts:

Contractors or employees?

At the center of each of these lawsuits is the claim that club managers are picking and choosing the labor laws they wish to follow. The standard defense on the management end is that these women are classified as independent contractors, so are not entitled to wages, job benefits or protections, and can be fired without notice.

But in every one of these cases, the management is violating one of the principles of contracted labor: that the employer cannot legally control the manner in which work is performed. Descriptions abound of dancers being told how to move, what to wear, how many and what songs to dance to, even the amount of time they are permitted to have their clothes on.

It would be like telling a contractor, “You have to fix my patio on Wednesday or Thursday for eight hours each day for the next four weeks or you’re fired.” That’s how stripping has often worked, but it’s not how independent contracting works under the law.

Rampant fining and tip theft

A uniting issue in the labor organization of exotic dancers is the persistence of cases involving the unlawful garnishment of tips. Strippers are charged “rent” for the use of the club and are fined when they break certain house rules, such as not removing all their clothing within a certain amount of time, chewing gum, or arriving late.

On top of this, it is common practice for exotic dancers to “tip out” the DJ, the bartenders, and the bouncers in lieu of these workers getting paid wages. In Portland, strippers are “expected to give 10% of their tips to bar staff” at the end of night, and many are handing 20-40% of their earnings to doormen, bouncers, and DJs out of fear of termination or losing shifts, or because they’re new and just don’t know any better.

Recently, a club owner was busted by a plainclothes IRS agent for blabbing about making $30,000-40,000 a month on stage fees, and not putting it on the books.

Getting the law involved

Of equal concern to activists in the exotic dancing industry is the safety and welfare of the dancers themselves, as strippers describe being groped by staff and not being protected from aggressive customers. And given their contractor status, they are not covered by worker’s compensation insurance and are often required to perform in dangerous or unsanitary environments.

Most recently legislation has passed in Oregon that takes the first steps at recognizing dancers as worthy of legal protection. Elle Stanger, a dancer and organizer based in Portland, is partly responsible for the passage of HB 3059, a bill that requires Oregon state clubs to put posters of the rights of entertainment workers on their walls. It also establishes a hotline for dancers to call and report problems with the facilities and management.

“Some of the buildings are literally dilapidated and not maintained,” Stanger said in an interview. “You have entertainers that could injure themselves from broken glass on the stage, poor wiring with the sound system. We just want to get these workplaces up to a minimum safety standard at least.”

Regardless of whether or not the profession of exotic dancing is frowned upon, mocked, or ignored by the mainstream public, the abundance of successful lawsuits may have an enduring effect on all forms of independent contract work. By defending the safety and labor rights of one class of workers, strippers may be defending them all.

Related articles on AvvoStories: