Dancers' wage fight anything but exotic

commentJanuary 5, 2012 

It had been a tough day for Jennifer Prater, but Jennifer, pale and tired, looked like she had known other tough days. A small, thirty-something redhead, Jennifer is one of three plaintiffs in a wages-and-hours lawsuit she and two other dancers, strippers, filed against their former employers in federal court. They are asking for $324,000 in back pay and other compensation.

Jennifer was on the witness stand Tuesday -- and on the receiving end of cross- examination by Bradley Shafer, attorney for the defendants, the Crazy Horse Saloon and Fantasies on 5th Avenue.

Speaking in a low voice with a pronounced Irish accent, Jennifer explained the Crazy Horse compensation system. Dancers received the minimum wage and tips for table dances and so-called VIP dances in a private lounge. In turn, the dancers had to pay a "house fee" of $10 an hour for each hour they worked and tip the bouncer, the DJ, the doorman, and the "House Moms and Dads" -- floor supervisors. They also were expected to sell "souvenirs" provided by charities -- Jerry's Kids was one -- and buy the souvenirs themselves if they could not sell them.

Jennifer testified that given the fees and tips required by her employer, there were days she took home next to nothing for her labors. She also explained under questioning that on one occasion her labors were painfully interrupted by post-traumatic stress disorder and a workers' compensation claim after "an individual climbed on stage and bit me."

This is not "Dancing With the Stars."

Many people smirk at the term "sex workers," but it is important to remember these young women really are workers, and their compensation, working conditions and treatment by management has generated labor-law cases all over the United States.

It's additionally important to remember women drift in and out of the dancing industry. For a while, Jennifer was a waitress at Denny's.

The dancers' wages and the fees and tips imposed by the clubs generated mountains of paperwork, as did sign-in sheets awaiting the dancers at the bar when they arrived at work. A significant part of the trial has been arguments over the credibility of the paperwork -- and the additional employment records the dancers themselves created in preparation for trial. It seems the clubs invested so much time and effort in record-keeping to ensure they could wring as many dollars as possible from their workers through deductions. It was clear from his questions Judge Timothy Burgess recognized this; it was not clear what he might do about it under the law.

Much of the trial was tedious despite the subject matter. A stripper answering "Is that your signature on Exhibit One?" creates no more fireworks than a CPA responding to the same question. For fireworks, the audience -- three or four people -- had to rely on Jeanette Johnson, owner of the Crazy Horse, a woman apparently in her seventies who lived up to the stereotype of the hard-bitten strip-club owner.

After a recess, Judge Burgess returned to the courtroom and admonished Ms. Johnson for making contact with the plaintiffs during the break, specifically for attempting to intimidate them. The judge -- forcefully -- told her not to do it again. If she did, he said, she would be removed from the courtroom and perhaps fined for contempt of court.

Kenneth Legacki, the plaintiffs' attorney, told me Ms. Johnson had encountered the dancers in the ladies room and called them gold diggers. Irony may be foreign to Ms. Johnson.


Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Daily News. Email, mcarey@adn.com.

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