The basic rules of employment are simple: Show up for work; get paid. Repeat over time.
But when Nancy — who has been stripping for almost two decades in various clubs in Oregon and Florida — shows up for work, she has to pay to be there. She pays the club, the DJ, the bartender, and security. She has even paid the parking attendants.
Nancy followed in the platformed footsteps of her older sisters, who also stripped and showed off their money, outfits, and heels. Nancy thought it would be good, easy money. She knows how the industry works, but lately she's been challenging the status quo of strip clubs.
"[Dancers] are the main focus of the place, but we are on the lowest end of the totem pole as workers," says Nancy, who asked New Times to use a pseudonym because she still works in the industry and fears repercussions. "We have to pay to be there. We have to pay the security's tip. We're tipping the DJ. Why are we tipping the DJ?"
Nancy and another former dancer have filed a federal lawsuit against one of their former clubs, Bellas Cabaret in Hialeah, for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Florida Minimum Wage Act. The women say they weren't paid minimum wage or overtime during their years working at the club. The suit hinges on whether the dancers are employees or independent contractors, a distinction that costs them a stable wage and benefits.
The defendants haven't formally responded to the lawsuit. Joshua Entin, an attorney representing the club, said in an email that Bellas Cabaret "disputes the claims in the lawsuit and intends to vigorously defend against the allegations."
Among the universally accepted realities of working as a dancer is that not all patrons are generous. Nancy says that on nights when dancers rake in lots of tips, they don't feel the dent from the club's fees. But on weeknights when the clubs aren't full or when the guys are cheap, the dancers leave at a deficit.
"Sometimes you don't make any money at all and can leave with a negative," Nancy says.
Just as in gambling, the house always wins.
Nancy's lawyers — Brandon Chase, Hugo Apellaniz, and David Gillis — argue that the dancers were employees during the years they worked at Bellas and were entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay.
The Internal Revenue Service says an employee is anyone who performs services for someone else who controls what and how the services are done, even if the employee has "freedom of action."
"What matters is that you have the right to control the details of how the services are performed," the IRS says.
Independent contractors, on the other hand, are self-employed; their services are not controlled by an employer.
In the case of the strip club owners and the dancers, Chase says, "They tell you when to come in; they tell you when to dance; they tell you what you have to wear, what you can't wear. Those are factors for control. So they're employees."
Apellaniz says the dancers also had to work slower days during the week to qualify for a shift Friday or Saturday.
"That's obviously not the hallmark of an independent contractor," Apellaniz tells New Times.
Nancy's minimum wage and overtime claims for working at Bellas from late 2014 to mid-2017 amount to just shy of $60,000. The other plaintiff claims she is owed $64,000 for about the same amount of time.
The attorneys have represented at least nine other dancers or bartenders against Bellas for similar claims. Chase says those lawsuits were settled for amounts he isn't allowed to disclose. Other dancers have reached out to the attorneys, and other lawsuits might be filed.
Nancy says she hopes her case will lead to changes in the way strip clubs treat their dancers and do business, although she's skeptical that will happen. She wants other dancers to push to be acknowledged as employees and maybe even start a union. That might not happen anytime soon in Florida, but erotic dancers in California have begun organizing to demand better wages and protections against harassment and discrimination.
For her part, Nancy says her time as a dancer is coming to an end. Doing tricks on a pole for 20 years has been hell on her knees and feet. Plus, she has a new passion: She wants to be a show-dog mom to her French bulldogs and aspires to show them at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show one day.
"I say I'm dancing for dogs," Nancy says, "literally and figuratively."
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