« WSAU Opinion Blog

OPINION - Dancers, jockeys and independent contractors

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) You've heard about the strip club lawsuit that's in the news. Former dancer Elizabeth Mays claims she was incorrectly classified as an independence contractor, and that the clubs she performed in ripped her off.

Before considering her case, let's consider jockeys.

Jockeys -- people who ride thoroughbred horses for a living -- are independent contractors. Once a jockey takes out a license, they're free to ride horses at any racetrack they show up at. The racetrack isn't their employer; the owners of the racetrack provide the venue where the jockeys ply their trade. A jockey provides their own equipment and hustles their own business by persuading owners and trainers to let them ride their hoses. A jockey is free to negotiate their pay with the owners they ride for, either under contact or under the racetrack's house rules -- usually 10% of the purses they win. The racetracks have rules that the jocks must follow. At most tracks, a jockey must employ a valet paid 5% of what the jockey earns to handle their silks and equipment. A jockey agrees to submit to rulings by the stewards, who can issue fines or suspensions for unsafe riding or other rule violations. Tracks can still rule off jockeys who are perceived to be dishonest or poor riders.

Jockeys move around a lot. If a stable sends their horses to winter in Florida, the jockey might pack up and move from Belmont Park to Gulfstream Park. If a jockey finds that he's not good enough to ride against top level competition at Churchill Downs, he might move his tack to Hoosier Park or Thistledown where the horses are slower and the other riders aren't as skilled. A young, hot-shot jockey might decide to take their shot at Santa Anita after racking up wins at Arapahoe Park.

I think dancers in strip clubs are like jockeys. Most dancers move from club to club. The nightclubs want turnover among their performers; regulars want a new and ever-changing cast. The dancers, after their wares are "known" to a clubs regulars, see their business dry up. Since they work primarily for tips, their take is likely to go up when they're the new face somewhere else. In my view, the club provides the venue where the dancers interact with the men who tip them. That's an independent-contractor relationship.

If that's true, strip clubs can set up rules for the people who dance there. A stage fee? Yes, a dancer may pay have to pay for their stage time just as a hairstylist pays for their chair in the beauty salon. Should the club get a commission for the host/hostess to steer customers to certain dancers? Yes. Rules about showing up on time and what you can/cant wear? Of course.

Labor laws are highly specific and complex about whether a worker is an employee or a contractor. Those rules will govern whether Elizabeth Mays wins her lawsuit. The specific rules at the places where she worked will determine if she wins or loses. There are other cases where dancers have won or have reached settlements.

There are two final points. Low-skill jobs are never going to pay well. (We can debate whether taking off your clothes and grinding is low-skilled or not...) In an independent-contactor or an employer-employee relationship, the owners of strip clubs are always going to consider their dancers as interchangeable and a dancers tip will always be at-risk. Lastly, people are free to choose their own line of work or negotiate their terms. If a dancer doesn't like the conditions at a club, theyre free to go somewhere else or find a different way to make a living.

Chris Conley

Image: Strip Club Customers Seated at Tip Railby Fabio Bruna via WikiCommons.com