The Sapphire Gentlemen's club in Las Vegas claims to be the world's largest night club. While that may or may not be true, it's undoubtedly a behemoth. The place is 71,000 square feet and employs approximately 6,600 performers. But while Sapphire is raking in the cash, none of the women who work there are paid by the club.
Soon, that will change. Back in 2009, strippers from the Sapphire filed a class action lawsuit, claiming that tips weren't cutting it. They wanted at least minimum wage tacked onto their incomes, arguing that they were full-fledged employees rather than independent contractors. Even though they were free to work elsewhere on the side and had artistic license regarding their performances, they still had to adhere to certain house rules, like making sure their heels weren't too short and their costumes weren't too skimpy.
Although a Clark County judge originally threw out the suit, the dancers appealed. On October 30, they finally secured a victory from the Nevada Supreme Court. It's a huge case that could have wide implications in Sin City and beyond. By politically mobilizing, exotic dancers are able to secure better wages and benefits like health insurance, as well as gaining a bit of job security. When they become official employees, they can't be fired or taken off the schedule for no reason.
Damienne is a dancer who worked at Sapphire on its opening night and in clubs all over the world for 17 years before pursuing a master's degree at the London School of Economics. She says that the push within the industry for employee rights is more controversial than it sounds. She remembers the couple of summers she spent working at a club in Alaska, and that the girls there were pushing for unionization. She was against it. After all, it could fuck with her income, and she wasn't there during the non-tourist months, when some of the full-timers would contend with nights so slow that they would pay to perform and end up at a deficit. What's more, she worried about what would happen to her income if the club decided that, since their strippers were getting wages, private dances should be given for free.
But of course organization among employees has many upsides. Damienne remembers working a club in California with rotting staircase—a recipe for disaster when combined with stilettos. "If a dancer broke her leg," she told me, "they'd be out of work for months with no recourse." Damienne has had her own brush with injury. In another club, she caught her shoe on a carpet snag and plowed into the corner of a wooden bench. "It literally took my skin off down to the bone," she said. "Luckily it didn't get infected, because I didn't have health insurance at the time." Today, she's one of hundreds of beneficiaries to a number of strip-club-related class action suits.
But even though strippers are conflicted about whether they want to be considered employees, the trend toward that distinction is growing. It all started with Johanna Breyer, who began her career as a dancer in San Francisco in 1990. Two years into her side job (she was also a student at Berkeley, studying social welfare), one of her employers introduced a $10 stage fee. When the tithe was arbitrarily raised to $20, she and another dancer, Dawn Passar, formed the Exotic Dancer's Alliance. About 35 of their co-workers at Market Street Cinema met at a nearby restaurant one day to raise concerns about the club's labor practices, such as the need to tip the DJ to make sure one was put on the schedule again.
After the meeting, the women sent a certified letter to the management, voicing their requests. They wanted the stage fee to cover certain improvements. When they got no response, the EDA started holding regular meetings and filing complaints with the State Labor Commission. They wanted to unionize, but with the exception of the Lusty Lady in San Francisco, all strippers across the country were still considered independent contractors.
Eventually, the labor commission ruled that the women were employees. Although the club appealed and won, a movement had begun. A class action suit was filed against another local spot, Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre, in 1994, and eventually resulted in a $2.85 million settlement.
Since then, a number of judges in states like Georgia, New York, and California have all agreed that strippers deserve wages, and cases are currently kicking around in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina concerning the same issue.
Leon Greenberg, an attorney at the overtime wage and collection center in Vegas, says that there have actually been 10-20 decisions about strippers' employment statuses in the past five years. The lawyer says it's a serious issue that people don't take seriously given the nature of the plaintiff's profession.
"They're a hard demographic to represent," he told me. "The girls who are into it are making a lot of money, so it's easy to say, 'Oh, we're getting $500 or $1,000 or a couple of thousand dollars for a day or night's work.' Even though these girls are taking a lot of abuse and not getting the legal protection they clearly deserve, they're afraid to rock the boat."
But the six plaintiffs in the Sapphire suit took the risk, and they'll now be making $8.25 an hour on top of whatever cash they bring home, although the decision doesn't say when that will go into effect. "The consideration of these sex workers as employees is a huge step forward in giving them a voice within the context of where they work" Damienne says. "Is it a movement that's inevitable? I don't know, but I'd like to think that the idea of workers' voices' being heard is a movement that's very much needed."