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Lawsuits question exotic dancer pay 

The big turnoff.

click to enlarge BRIAN CHILSON

Four lawsuits currently winding their way through federal court in the Eastern District of Arkansas seek to change the way exotic dancers are paid, with attorneys for the plaintiffs pointing out that in most cases dancers are paid no hourly wage, work only for tips and actually have to pay the clubs to dance there.

The lawsuits, filed in August 2011 against Central Arkansas gentlemen's clubs Visions, Peaches, Club 70 and Paper Moon, list 20 former dancers as plaintiffs. Attorneys requested that the cases be given broader class-action status last July, but that motion is still pending before the courts. The lawsuits seek damages in the form of back pay at the minimum wage for the hours and overtime the women worked.

Anne Milligan is an attorney with Little Rock's Sanford Law Firm, which is representing the plaintiffs. Milligan said her firm became interested in the issue after a woman who sought representation in a domestic case told attorneys about pay and working conditions at the club where she worked.

We left messages at Peaches and Paper Moon seeking comment for this story, but our calls weren't returned at press time. Club 70 filed for bankruptcy in November 2011 and the phone number listed for the business is disconnected. Little Rock attorney Denise Reid Hoggard, who represents plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Visions, said she couldn't comment on the lawsuit.

Though Milligan is limited by court rulings as to what she can say about individual defendants in the lawsuits, she said club managers routinely tell dancers they are working as independent contractors or "lessees." Clubs usually require dancers to pay a "house fee" of $25 to $35 per shift for the right to work there, with the dancers working solely for tips. In some cases, she said, dancers are required to pay the house fee twice in one day if they work two shifts. Dancers are also responsible for tipping the DJ who plays music during their dances.

"They have to tip out the DJ, or the DJ will make your life miserable," Milligan said. "He'll call you names when you come out on stage, or he'll play purposefully bad music that you can't dance to, or he'll play music that turns your dance number into a kind of comedy routine. ... No one is really turned on by that, so nobody [tips] you any money."

Under state law, workers who make more than $30 per month in tips are considered "tipped employees" and must be paid a base wage of $2.63 per hour. With no hourly wage, no overtime, the house fee, tips to the DJ, and other expenses, Milligan said it's possible for a woman to leave at the end of the night actually owing money to the club.

"Usually, you have extremely young women who are coming into this, and they're just told that this is the way it's done," Milligan said. "Some clubs go so far as to say they're independent contractors. They hear that at work and they think, 'Well, if that's the way my boss says it is, I'll believe him.' "

Milligan said similar issues were once common all over the country. She said the first lawsuits concerning how exotic dancers are paid started in Alaska in the 1980s, and have since spread to other states.

Due to the clubs classifying the dancers as independent contractors, Milligan said, there's usually no recourse for those who are injured while performing. "We have one client who had to take six months off from work and couldn't get unemployment or Worker's Comp because she hurt her knee dancing," she said. "There was just no safety net for her, so... our recorded address for her was a tent in Bauxite, Arkansas."

We were able to reach a few of the plaintiffs, but none of them wanted to speak on the record. In an affidavit attached to the lawsuit against Visions Cabaret, a former bartender named Jennifer Armstrong writes under oath that during her six years working at the club, she saw dancers as young as 18 "so intoxicated they were falling off the stage," screamed at, mistreated or sexually harassed by staff and management, with dancers often "degraded, talked down to, and made to feel like less of a person."

"I frequently saw door men refuse to let dancers into the club unless they showed them their breasts," Armstrong writes. "Floor guys often ogled the dancers while they dressed and undressed in the dressing rooms."

Noting that the only money she might earn for her cooperation is a $100 witness fee if the case proceeds to trial, Armstrong says her participation isn't about money. "This is about being a woman, a human, and realizing that the way you treat people matters," she writes. "Even though I doubt this lawsuit will change things, or make it better regarding that type of industry, by involving myself now as an affiant and a witness, I can look back and know I finally stood up for them."

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