It’s not a subject that has ever lingered on the nation’s consciousness for any extended period of time, but American strippers are subjected to discriminatory practices in the workplace far more than must of us realize. Perhaps that’s because working in a club as a stripper is not a “mainstream” profession. It’s a choice many young women make freely. As one young woman I talked to told me, “the money’s good, and I don’t have to lay on my back to earn it”.
There is a war going on between the club owners, and the girls who work in them.
Like any employee, Sonja had set hours, had to be on stage at a certain time and dress a certain way. She was penalized if she missed a shift. But she wasn’t paid by the club. She worked for 15 years in three states, and each time was paid as an “independent contractor”. 100% of her pay was in the form of tips.
Independent contractors do not have taxes deducted. They do not receive medical benefits, sick pay, and are not protected by laws against discrimination. They are ineligible for unemployment compensation, and may not qualify for social security or Medicare if money is not put into the programs directly by them.
It’s a situation that Sonja and other strippers are increasingly challenging in court. The 37-year-old from Brockton, Mass., has won two court settlements in the last two years. She is awaiting the outcome of two more.
Typically young women making the decision to work in these clubs see the “fast” money, and never consider the future. With age comes wisdom, and awareness that club owners made money without risk or responsibility.
Club owners frequently charge the girls additional “fees”.
Hima B., a former stripper in San Francisco who is working on a documentary about strippers’ labor rights, paid $5 “stage fee” for a six-hour shift when she started working in 1992. Within months, the fee jumped to $25. By the time she stopped working in 1999, she was paying $200 per shift. It’s commonplace for club owners to levy such a fee.
“You should be paid to work. You shouldn’t pay to work,” said Hima B., who like Sonja and the other strippers in this article, asked that she be identified by her stage name.
Sonja also paid stage fees, and more; $80 for showing up late, $25 to dance one song and $60 for a half hour in a private room. Some strippers also have to pay DJs and other overhead costs like rent.
“They’re making tons of cash charging girls to work,” Sonja said.
“The times they are a-changing.” The Kansas Supreme Court decreed that the dancers at Club Orleans in Topeka were employees and not contractual talent. They were ordered to pay unemployment insurance.
A court ruling last November ordered the Spearmint Rhino chain in California to pay a class action settlement of 13 million dollars. The money will be divided between strippers in six states.
“We’ve seen a lot of great rulings like these,” said Shannon Liss-Riordan, an attorney who specializes in labor cases.
In the last 10 years, Liss-Riordan has been involved in a dozen cases like Sonja’s, who she represents. She has either won or reached settlements in favor of the strippers in at least half of them and the rest are still pending.
There are other professions where employees work for tips or have to pay for a spot — like waiters and hairdressers. The difference is that these workers also earn wages.
“Strippers, on the other hand, are buying a job,” said Liss-Riordan. “To have money taken away from them is a sad state of affairs.”
The women are beginning to fight back. Dancers at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco formed the Exotic Dancers Union in 1997. The Lusty Lady in now entirely employee owned, and they vote on all decisions. They agreed to a “slightly higher” than minimum wage, plus tips.
Columnist-The Guardian Express