A New York district judge declared that Rick’s Cabaret, a strip club in Midtown Manhattan, owes 1,900 former dancers more than $10 million in back pay in a Nov. 14 ruling. The decision is a follow-up to a court case last year where it was ruled that Rick’s treated the dancers as employees, but failed to pay them minimum wage and unjustly collected fees from them. Considering the performers’ time at the club was tracked via an electronic fingerprint scanner, the dancers have ample evidence for the upcoming trial, where they are seeking $18.8 million. The class action lawsuit includes dancers who worked at the club from 2005 through late 2012, indicating the severe extent of the problem. While the performers are making progress toward compensation, the length of time that these labor violations span indicates that the city must increase its oversight of workers in vulnerable positions.
Rick’s Cabaret initially attempted to dismiss Sabrina Hart and Reka Furedi, the two dancers leading the lawsuit, for “lacking moral character.” The defendants noted that Hart violated the club’s rules when she gave her phone number to a customer, who later became her husband. Hart’s violation of this rule neither implies that she lacks moral character nor that she should be disqualified from leading the lawsuit. Rick’s Cabaret’s attack on the dancers’ reputations only highlights its own lack of moral character. Not only did the establishment underpay its dancers, it also made them pay for access to its poles and stages.
The Houston-based company that operates Rick’s Cabaret plans to appeal the court’s ruling. The company justified the back pay by calling the dancers “independent contractors” instead of employees, arguing that Rick’s Cabaret was within bounds to charge the dancers fees for the use of its performance venue, much like studio space. Instead of wages, their nightly earnings theoretically would come directly from patrons. Moreover, Rick’s Cabaret took a percentage of some of these earnings when patrons did not pay cash.
The defendants’ attempt to discount the legitimacy of the dancers’ complaints by invoking questions of moral character is deplorably hypocritical. New Yorkers should not be swayed by their misleading tactics, which are nothing more than a self-serving distraction from the defendants’ own ethical shortcomings. Rick’s Cabaret cheated its dancers out of minimum wage for at least seven years, wrongly labeling them as independent contractors rather than employees when it required them to adhere to a number of company rules. Among the labor abuses, these dancers were denied health benefits and charged stage fees to dance for patrons. The $10 million plus back pay is long overdue and represents a victory for both fair wages and for workers in the adult entertainment industry.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 17 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]