Longform

Strippers Have Rights. But Do They Want Them?

It's 9 on a Tuesday night, and Jaguars Dallas, a big, boxy strip club between Stemmons Freeway and Northwest Highway, is almost empty. The club doesn't have many neighbors, just a row of truck lots and vacant yards, plus one friendly rock 'n' roll strip joint called the Clubhouse. Jaguars is trying for something more sophisticated, from the oversized Roman-columned façade to the round tables ringing the stage, each topped with a crisp white tablecloth. A disco ball shines a blue light over the main room's cheetah-print carpet, illuminating thousands of stains, as a cheery blonde circulates among the few customers, handing out hugs, plopping down in laps to say hello.

A woman named Holly is sitting at the bar in the back. She's slugging a Corona and adjusting her black-framed glasses, which match her black bra, frilly tutu and determined expression. A tattoo, a simple line drawing of Texas, graces her ribcage, and the cups of her bra stand at some distance from her chest.

"I pay $30 just to work," she grouses. "That's if I get here at seven." Ten bucks go toward the standard house fee, she complains, 10 more to the house mom and 10 more to the DJ.

Holly is 22. She used to work at a bank. She liked that much better. But car problems, combined with the urgency of feeding a 15-month-old son, sent her searching for something more lucrative. The money here is decent, she says, but stripping doesn't come with a lot of fringe benefits. Her son's on Medicaid. She has no healthcare.

"If I fall off that pole, I'm on my own," she says, flinging a skinny arm toward the stage.

Ten minutes later she's on her back at the edge of the stage, a kittenish smile on her face. Her stiletto heels are balanced on the shoulders of a guy in a suit who's methodically tucking bills into her G-string. On a good night she leaves Jaguars with around $600 — not a bad haul but hardly a killing by Dallas strip club standards. When she worked at Cabaret Royale, an all-nude 18-and-over club, she often walked out with $1,000 or more.

While Holly collects her singles on the stage, a manager appears at the bar. "I understand you've been asking questions," he says. Being interviewed upset the girls, he says. He can't have people in here making them uncomfortable. A reporter's business card, handed to Holly moments before, appears in his hand; he snaps it between his fingers before it vanishes into a jacket pocket. "I'd like you to call it a night," he says, and folds his arms.

Technically, Holly isn't the manager's employee. She's an independent contractor, a sort of freelance lap-dance consultant. But to labor lawyers and the government, the relationship between strippers and their clubs looks an awful lot like employment: Dancers have some set shifts, are required to be on stage at certain times, have specific dress codes (one high-end Dallas club has a "no booty shorts" rule) and even pay "emergency" fees for leaving a shift early.

But classifying dancers like Holly as contractors allows the clubs, like the many businesses that make use of the practice (including newspapers) any number of benefits to their bottom lines. They don't pay overtime, minimum wage, worker's comp or payroll taxes. It's a system employed by virtually every strip club in Dallas and across the country, with a few notable exceptions. (San Francisco's Lusty Lady is the country's only union shop; only a small handful of states, including Illinois and Massachusetts, have clubs where dancers are classified as employees.)

It's been this way for decades. But the independent contractor system, at least for strip clubs, is suddenly taking heavy fire. Current and former strippers are filing class-action lawsuits against clubs, claiming that they have been improperly classified as independent contractors. The suits, which have been won by strippers in at least 10 states, ask for back pay and damages, with settlements that sometimes run into the millions of dollars. And a Dallas-based strip-club business may be next.

But dancers across Dallas, one of the biggest planets in the stripper universe, are skeptical that the lawsuits will affect their bottom lines for the better. They argue that the lawsuits will actually threaten their income stream while handing to lawyers a bonanza in fees — just another set of hands grasping at the glittery wads of cash jutting from their G-strings.

"Everyone sees sex workers as a cash cow," says Amanda Brooks, a former Dallas stripper who switched to escort work because she found it less stressful. (With all the fees and fines, Brooks says, she finished more than one shift owing the club cash.) "By the time the money reaches you, there are people trying to take their bit out of it of the entire route."