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March 29, 2017

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After dozens of lawsuits over many years, strippers still fighting for employee status

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Steve Marcus

A stripper gives a lap dance during halftime at a Super Sunday party at the Sapphire Las Vegas strip club Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013.

A federal judge has given preliminary approval for a $6.5 million settlement in lawsuits against 64 of the 132 strip clubs owned by Déjà Vu Consulting Inc. nationwide. That could result in cash or up to $2,000 in club credits for the thousands of women who’ve worked at the chain’s Las Vegas locations (for at least a month) since 2004, including Déjà Vu, Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club, Showgirls and Little Darlings.

The dozen or so wage-per-hour suits considered by U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy of Michigan get at a fundamental issue of the business: Should strippers be classified as independent contractors or employees?

Lansing, Mich.-based attorney Matthew Hoffer, who represents a Jane Doe plaintiff, confirmed the federal suit’s impact on Las Vegas dancers but declined to comment “until after a final settlement is reached.”

Local managers of Déjà Vu and Little Darlings said they were not sure what effect the lawsuit would have on their dancers, deferring to the chain’s national headquarters in Lansing. Déjà Vu Consulting Inc. did not return multiple requests for comment.

The series of minimum wage and labor law violation suits started in 2008, when a dancer at a Michigan club run by Lansing-based Cin-Lan Inc. said she and dancers at eight other company clubs in the state were unfairly classified as independent contractors. Déjà Vu Consulting Inc. also was named in that suit. The companies and dancers settled for $11.3 million in 2011.

Another Jane Doe filed what became a class action lawsuit in Michigan’s Eastern District, arguing that Déjà Vu had too much control over the day-to-day work of dancers labeled as independent contractors. The suit she filed expanded into a complaint covering the 64 Déjà Vu locations, incorporating other state and federal suits involving the company since 2008.

About $935,000 will be divided among dancers who opt for cash payments, according to court documents. Déjà Vu dancers also can choose credits, from $200 to $2,000 depending on the length of time they worked at the club, to use toward renting stage time and other fees. A hearing to determine whether the settlement and process for evaluating employee status is fair is scheduled for June 6 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Strippers in Las Vegas have long protested work conditions and compensations. As independent contractors, they aren’t entitled to a minimum wage, insurance benefits, sexual harassment claims or workers’ compensation from clubs, where they pay to perform and collect only tips. In one of the most famous suits, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that clubs were not exempt from provisions of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, and that employees were entitled to federal minimum wage. The final ruling came more than five years after dancers from Sapphire Las Vegas Gentleman’s Club sued the valley’s largest strip club in 2009.

Despite continued rulings in favor of strippers, attorneys who’ve represented them say little within the industry has changed.

Tucson-based Mick Rusing was the lead attorney in winning for the Jane Does involved in the Sapphire case, and before that won compensation for strippers from the now-closed Glitter Gulch. While the Sapphire case seemed to set a precedent for treatment of dancers, any progress was “quickly reversed,” when the 2015 Nevada Legislature passed Senate Bill 224.

The bill, signed into law by Gov. Brian Sandoval, allows for “just about anyone” in Nevada to be classified as an independent contractor, regardless of the work they’re doing, Rusing said. “Under no stretch of the imagination are these women independent contractors.”

Rusing said strip clubs have “never won a case” against strippers suing for employee status, and he called Nevada’s definition of an independent contractor a “false comfort” for the industry. He pointed to Déjà Vu’s ongoing settlement in U.S. District Court as an example of the federal government’s willingness to intervene regardless of state laws. But after more than a decade of suing and winning money from the clubs, Las Vegas dancers haven’t seen “an iota of change” in how they’re compensated, Rusing said.

“It’s just really unfair,” he said.

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