In the same week that low-wage truck drivers, warehouse employees, and fast-food workers are taking to picket lines to demand better wages, a small group of strippers in Colorado is going to court for the same cause.
Four exotic dancers are suing Fantasy Gentlemen’s Club in Grand Junction, Colo., claiming the club’s owner violated federal and state minimum-wage laws. The class-action lawsuit claims Fantasy made its dancers work only for tips, then took such a large cut of those tips that dancers sometimes made less than $7.25 per hour, the federally mandated minimum wage. Colorado state law dictates a minimum wage of $7.78 for some industries.
The case could have implications for the way strip clubs across the country operate. It also comes at a time when low-wage workers across the country are pushing for higher wages and President Obama is calling for an increase in the federal minimum wage.
“The case is fundamentally one of exploitation, of exploiting workers that are vulnerable because of the stigma that’s attached to what they do,” Mari Newman, the Denver attorney representing the dancers, told The Huffington Post. “It’s an example of treating workers as chattel.”
Kevin Eardly, the owner of the club, denied the charges and characterized the suit as a shakedown by a group of disgruntled strippers.
“They’re just looking for a handout, that’s what they’re looking for,” Eardly told HuffPost.
Filed in Colorado federal court, the suit alleges Fantasy broke federal and state law by classifying employees as independent contractors, denying them a minimum wage, overtime payments and other labor protections. Such an arrangement is common in the adult entertainment industry, Newman acknowledged, but in her mind, it's a clear violation of the law.
And Newman is not the first to make the argument. In April, a group of New York dancers settled with New York City’s Penthouse Executive Club for $8 million over a similar claim of unpaid wages. In July 2012, strippers in Atlanta received a $1.55 million settlement. And Kansas has ruled that, for the purposes of calculating state unemployment insurance benefits, strippers count as employees.
Newman says Fantasy’s case is particularly egregious. The club charged the dancers so many fees for the privilege of working there that, she said, dancers sometimes “ended up paying the club at the end of the night.”
According to the complaint, the club charged a fee per shift, then took a 25 percent cut of each private dance. At the end of the night, strippers had to hand over 14 cents out of every crumpled dollar they collected to pay bouncers and DJs. Strippers also collected “fines” for situations beyond their control, such as cases when a customer touched them inappropriately.
Eardly, the club owner, denies the club’s rules were onerous, saying that “the rules we gave them came from the liquor board, and are there so the club doesn’t get fined thousands of dollars.” He further claimed that dancers at the club average between $300 and $800 per nine-hour shift “depending on the day, depending on the dancer.”
Eardly does not dispute that he classified his dancers as independent contractors, but reiterated that such an arrangement is standard for the industry.
“These girls never mentioned that they were employees,” he said.
Not that they were encouraged to raise a fuss. One of the exhibits appended to the lawsuit, a photograph ostensibly from inside the dancers’ dressing room, shows a sign clearly instructing the women to keep their mouths shut:
“Any dancer complaining to customers about their personal lives will be fined,” the sign reads in all-caps. “They came here to have a good time not to hear about your bullsh*t!”