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Should Tampa Bay’s strip club dancers be employees, not contractors?

A federal lawsuit alleges a local club evades paying minimum wage and overtime. The club says dancers make good money working independently for tips.
A lawsuit filed in federal court in Tampa details the unique business model of strip clubs.
A lawsuit filed in federal court in Tampa details the unique business model of strip clubs. [ FLYNN, KATHLEEN | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Nov. 10, 2021

The Tampa Bay area has long been known for its lucrative strip club business, both near where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play and region wide.

In fact, the fierce fight over ordering dancers and patrons six feet apart to stop the lap dances that made the town infamous more than two decades ago remains the stuff of Tampa political legend.

Now comes a lawsuit that gives a glimpse into the inner workings of the unique business model of strip clubs, asking this question:

Should dancers be treated as wage-earning employees and not independent contractors working for tips?

According to the suit recently filed in federal court, plaintiff Destinee Dale was a dancer at Clearwater’s Oz Gentlemen’s Club, which advertises full liquor, VIP and champagne rooms, entertainers on three stages and sports on 45 TVs.

The suit alleges Oz evaded paying minimum wage and overtime to dancers who were essentially working as employees. The club set prices for dancers’ VIP performances and required them to share tips with disc jockeys, “house moms” and security, and to pay house fees, it said. The lawsuit alleges a violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires paying a tipped employee a minimum of $2.13 an hour.

Four dancers have since joined Dale in the lawsuit.

John Kristensen, the Los Angeles attorney representing Dale, called the claim that dancers simply lease space in the clubs “absurd.”

“If you lease space, only you control it,” he said. “No ones’s leasing space at McDonald’s when they’re working as a cashier.”

But Paul Scagnelli, owner of Oz, said it’s a matter of mathematics: Dancers make more under the current system of working for tips than they would as hourly employees, he said.

“They’re doing these girls no favors,” he said of the lawyers filing such suits.

In fact, each side accuses the other of exploiting the women who work at the clubs.

First Amendment attorney Luke Lirot, who represents Oz, said the well-intentioned Fair Labor Standards Act has no allowance for the strip club business model. Many dancers prefer controlling their own schedules to being regular employees, he said.

A 2017 study of such federal and state cases found that courts most often ruled that dancers were employees, awarding them wages, overtime and damages.

But Lirot, who in his career has represented both clubs and dancers, said these cases often settle for a monetary amount and then the club continues to operate as before — because plenty of dancers want to continue working for tips.

How much in tips? That varies widely depending on the venue, day of the week and other factors.

Stay tuned.

Of course you can’t write about about strip clubs around here without talking to Tampa’s Joe Redner, who famously fought that six-foot rule and ran for City Council himself. (Insiders say he might have won had he not offered free admission to anyone with an I Voted sticker.) Redner, always one to walk his own path, told me dancers at his club are “self-employed” and that he doesn’t tell them what to charge, collect house fees or require them to tip other employees.

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“I don’t get anything from my dancers,” said Redner, whose club makes money from cover charges and private rooms rented to customers. “I’m just like a landlord. I’m no different than a landlord that has a doctor as a tenant.”

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