How Strippers Are Fighting Exploitative Workplace Environments
Strippers in Las Vegas and elsewhere are pushing back against rules that make it harder for them to earn a living or file claims for sexual harassment.
This story appears in the December issue of VICE magazine.
During a ten-hour shift at work this past spring, Brandi Campbell was getting into an elevator when her manager grabbed her and pulled her close to his body. He wanted to know why she hadn't replied to his multiple requests to take her out for sushi. This wasn't the first time Campbell's boss had been inappropriate with her. In the eight months that she'd worked for him, he had habitually brushed his hands across her thighs and rubbed her shoulders. He had demanded her personal phone number so many times that she'd given in, and now he wouldn't stop calling, even though she had made it clear she wasn't interested.
Campbell decided that her best recourse was to sue for sexual harassment, but this would be no straightforward task. At the time Campbell was working as a stripper at Larry Flynt's Hustler Club in Las Vegas. Strippers have long faced hurdles in asserting their rights in the workplace. They generally aren't entitled to draw overtime, or to collect unemployment if they're fired. Most don't even earn hourly pay, receiving only what they make in tips from customers. Strippers are almost always classified as independent contractors rather than regular employees. It's this distinction that put Campbell's case in jeopardy: Employees alone are eligible to sue for sexual harassment, which means that independent contractors can take legal action only after suffering the most violating of infractions, such as rape.
But a recent judgment in Nevada gave Campbell hope. Last October, strippers won a major legal victory when the state Supreme Court ruled that they were actually club employees. They were due back pay, minimum wage in addition to their tips, and all the protections that come with employee status. Campbell had worked for more than 50 clubs across the country over her decade-long stripping career, and she had experienced harassment from customers and managers in almost all of them, but this was the first time she thought she had a shot at justice.
The Nevada Supreme Court decision was not an isolated incident. Strippers across the country have been taking their clubs to court, protesting their tips-only income and the stage fees they are often required to pay just for the right to perform. Since 2012, judges in California, Georgia, New York, and South Carolina have ruled in dancers' favour, granting them millions of dollars in back wages, and cases are pending in Illinois and Pennsylvania. These rulings have already had a dramatic impact on the $2.5 billion industry and the more than 350,000 dancers whom it employs, but the win in Nevada seemed to be the biggest yet.
In Terry v. Sapphire, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that former strippers from Sapphire Gentlemen's Club in Las Vegas were owed $8.25 for every hour they worked in addition to reimbursement for stage fees. This came to no small sum. Records show that Sapphire earns about $4 million a year in stage fees alone. In total, damage claims for the class of 10,000 dancers amounted to $80 million. But it was the court's unanimous decision that the strippers were employees rather than independent contractors that promised wide-ranging changes to strippers' working conditions across the state. "The industry isn't transparent; it's on the outskirts of society," said Rebekah Bailey, an attorney who represented strippers in Atlanta. "Clubs have been able to get away with this misclassification for a long time."
Sapphire quickly tried to appeal the ruling, but the request was summarily dismissed. In the wake of the decision, at least eight more strippers from Nevada filed lawsuits against their clubs, including Campbell, who sought back wages in addition to damages for sexual harassment. Two months later, pro-club interests tried to nullify the ruling by other means. In February, a bill aimed at redefining the rules by which workers were classified as employees and independent contractors was introduced on the State Senate floor. Most states use the federal Fair Labor Standards Act in order to make this designation.
The FLSA's economic realities test, which the Sapphire decision had explicitly endorsed, considers just how integral workers are to a business (people go to strip clubs for the strippers, not the overpriced Jack and Cokes) and workers' ability to control the execution of their services (strippers are often fined for failing to respond to requests to perform onstage) in order to determine their classification. According to Bailey, FLSA case law is "very favourable to the employee designation."
The Nevada Senate bill, known as SB224, was intended to privilege the preexisting agreements between employer and worker. It proposed an automatic classification of workers as independent contractors, granting employee status only if they fit various criteria, such as working for only one employer and being given a uniform. Many agree that the legislation was written directly in response to Terry v. Sapphire, though the law would apply to all workers in the state, not just those of the strip-club industry. Exotic dancers weren't invited to testify, and the Office of the Labor Commissioner, the agency that would be tasked with enforcing the law, wasn't consulted about the legislation. Business interests from across the state lined up to endorse it, however. "Sapphire and their lawyers made a propaganda campaign with the fallacious notion that Terry v. Sapphire precluded anyone in Nevada from setting up an independent-contractor relationship, which it doesn't do," said attorney Mick Rusing, who represented the Sapphire strippers. During hearings on the legislation, senators expressed open confusion as to the statute's objective and reach. (Senator James Settelmeyer, who sponsored the legislation, declined to be interviewed.) Despite the questions, the Senate passed the bill and the governor signed it into law this June.
The battle over workers' rights in the strip club industry is set against a backdrop of a broad upheaval of labor law. With the rise of the gig economy, more and more people now find themselves in conditions similar to those strippers have been working in for decades. They, too, are fighting back – and winning. Just a day after the passage of SB224, the California Labor Commissioner ruled that certain Uber drivers qualified as employees rather than independent contractors after the plaintiffs cited Terry v. Sapphire as a precedent. Uber immediately claimed that the decision applied to only one person, but the company's argument was soon weakened by the Department of Labor, which proposed new rules that would guarantee minimum wage to about 4.6 million currently exempt workers, some Uber drivers among them. The next month, the DOL issued a new interpretation of the FLSA, stressing that the federal economic realities test was vital to the economy, and that it trumped whatever might be defined in a preexisting contract between worker and employer.
But in Nevada, the passage of SB224 still threatens the gains strippers made from the Terry v. Sapphire ruling. After the six plaintiffs in the case filed motions following the Supreme Court's decision, Sapphire raised the statute as a defence, claiming that it invalidated the ruling. This October, the plaintiffs were forced to settle out of court for $6 million. "If SB224 had not been passed, we would have been awarded the $80 million," Rusing said. "The club probably would have had to file for bankruptcy."
Now Campbell's case hangs in the balance, too. If the state uses the classifications given by SB224, she'll be considered an independent contractor and her case will be basically null. "You've got laws protecting against sexual assault, but good luck trying to make a case out of those," said Campbell's attorney, Robert Spretnak. "There are reasons why we passed laws against sexual discrimination and sexual harassment at the workplace specifically." Yet he remains optimistic in light of what's happening with the interpretation of labor law at the federal level. "What [the club industry] thinks is a victory for them is in fact a very hollow victory, a gently sloping speed bump in the ever-accelerating trend of dancers being considered employees."
For her part, Campbell is adamant that the strip-club industry can recognise her rights and still survive. But she wants the industry to respect its dancers, their labor, and their right to work in a safe environment. She said that a representative from the Nevada Equal Rights Commission, which is tasked with enforcing safe working conditions in the state, had told her that in the past the agency had refused to take any complaints from strippers because of the sexually charged environment of their jobs. "So many people who don't understand that we have boundaries – that sex workers can be sexually harassed just like everyone else," she said. Whether or not the state recognises that remains to be seen. The NERC, which has to rule on her employee status in order for the case to proceed, hasn't decided whether it will investigate Campbell's claims.