(WorkersCompensation.com) - Despite more than two decades of lawsuits, exotic dancers still face issues over who pays if they are injured on the job.
And recent reports indicate the dancers work in some of the more unsafe industries out there.
Since 1994, exotic dancers have been suing their club owners for worker rights and benefits. While club owners identify exotic dancers as independent contractors, increasingly courts are ruling that they are employees of the clubs and entitled to benefits.
In April, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that an exotic dancer injured during a shooting incident in a Columbia, SC club was an employee and not an independent contractor, and entitled to weekly compensation for her injures.
Leandra Lewis was 19 when she was hit by gunfire during a fight at the Boom Boom Room Studio 54 in Columbia, SC on June 23, 2008. Shot in the abdomen, she suffered injuries to her intestines, liver, pancreas, kidney and uterus.
“She’s had considerable injury to a lot of organs, but she’s alive and ready to have her day in court,” said Charles Burnette, Lewis’ attorney, in an interview with WorkersCompensation.com.
The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that Lewis was an employee and was entitled to $75 per week in compensation. The case is now headed back to the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission for a hearing, Burnette said.
“This ruling clarifies that somebody in this industry is an employee and not an independent contractor,” Burnette said. “It clarifies the relationship between the dancer and who they are working for. It’s an important decision in this industry in that it clarifies the nature of the way dancers are paid.”
According to testimony in the case, Lewis said she typically made $250-$350 per night and danced 5 to 6 nights a week. Court filings estimated her total yearly income to be nearly $82,500.
Lewis argued that because the club controlled when she came to work, when she danced, what music she danced to and provided her with all of the necessary equipment to dance with, that she was an employee and not an independent contractor.
When Lewis was injured in the club, she filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, but because the club had no insurance, the South Carolina Uninsured Employers’ Fund defended the claim.
Lisa Glover, the in-house counsel for the Fund, told WorkersCompensation.com she had no comment on the case. Since the SC Workers’ Compensation Commission hasn’t set a hearing date, she said she couldn’t comment on the case or when it would be heard.
Other courts are also determining that dancers are employees when it comes to wages and benefits.
In February, a federal judge ruled that Déjà Vu Consulting, Inc. owed thousands of women who worked at its clubs since 2004 and were entitled to more than $6.5 million for wage and hour violations.
A hearing on the settlement is scheduled for June 6 in the U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
And in 2014, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that clubs were not exempt from Fair Labor Standards Act provisions and that employees were entitled to federal minimum wage. The ruling came some five years after the dancers started their suit against Sapphire Las Vegas Gentleman’s Club in 2009.
But exotic dancers say the industry is rife with more than just wage issue; there’s a danger of injury or illness as well.
On Survivethestage.com, a dancer blog, members talk about their experiences in clubs across the country. Outside of the problems of being an independent contractor, dancers face sexual assault and violence.
“Amidst all the glamorization and stigmatization of strip clubs, sometimes what gets glossed over are the dangers of stripping, or more accurately, the violence that sometimes burdens strippers and the vice industry in general,” user Chase Kelly wrote on Survivetheclub.com. “A few weeks ago nine people were shot on Bourbon Street a few blocks from where I work… In 2010 there was a shooting INSIDE a club I worked at, and a few years before that there was a drive by at my club in Connecticut. I’ve seen entertainers decked in the face by grown men, subsequent stabbings, and heard more dancers confess to leaving the club with customers and then being raped or drugged than I’d like to really remember.”
Other dancers said conditions inside the club can be dangerous enough.
A University of Minnesota study, commissioned by the Minneapolis Health Department, found that dancers face not only violence, but also a lack of worker protections.
The Health Department commissioned the study after inspecting all of the strip clubs in the city and finding that 65 percent of them were a public health nuisance and had bodily fluid bio-waste on the floors of the clubs.
Some dancers said the clubs themselves pose a health risk.
“Things happen all the time,” Rochelle MacDonald, an Oregon dancer, told ThinkProgress.com. “I’ve known many dancers over the years who got MRSA or staph infections from improper cleaning.”
McDonald said upkeep at the clubs — like failure to fix equipment, failure to adequately clean up broken glass and failure to clean the stage of debris — can lead to injury as well.
“It’s a pretty athletic career,” she noted. “You’re exposing your body to a lot during the course of a workday.”
But court rulings may not have made much of a difference in the industry so far.
For instance, despite the Nevada Supreme Court’s ruling in 2015, the Nevada Legislature passed Senate Bill 224, which helped employers indentify “just about anyone” to be classified as an independent contractor, said Mick Rusing, the lead attorney in the Sapphire case, in a Las Vegas Sun report.
And while no strip club has ever won a case against dancers suing for employee status, the new legislation is “false comfort” for the industry, Rusing said. Still the dancers have seen little change in how they are paid or protected, he said.
“Under no stretch of the imagination are these women independent contractors,” Rusing said.
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