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Exotic Dancers Stripped of Their Rights Are Leading the Fight to Save Class-Action Suits

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During a break between sets, Dina D'Antuano and Karen Vilnit were called up to the main office of Groton's Gold Club. In the fall of 2008, they were told their boss was updating paperwork and needed them to sign some papers. But according to a lawsuit filed in New York City's Second Circuit Court of Appeals in January 2011, what these barely-dressed employees didn't realize is that they were signing away their rights as workers.

 

D'Antuano and Vilnit, along with Ramona Cruz (who did not sign any paperwork) are suing their former boss. If they win, it could change the way strip clubs do business in Connecticut. If they lose, it could be a major blow to the future of class-action labor violation lawsuits.

An agreement between dancers and a club is not uncommon, according to Gigi, a 20-year-old who works at a topless bar in Fairfield County. Although her job pays a stipend to employees who work a full shift, she says other places require dancers to pay a “shift fee.”

Most of the 35 strip clubs in Connecticut consider their dancers independent contractors. That means owners can avoid paying an hourly wage, benefits, unemployment or worker's compensation. But the Gold Club, a small Connecticut chain with locations in Hartford and Groton, took that concept a step further, according to the lawsuit.

Shannon Liss-Riordan, the lawyer representing the dancers, says what the Gold Club has done is illegal. The Gold Club makes dancers sign “landlord-tenant” contracts, and charges “rent” to perform. In Connecticut, it is illegal to make someone pay for a job, Liss-Riordan says.

“They pay a shift fee, which the Gold Club calls ‘rent,' they have to tip out the DJ, they have to hand over a portion of what they make from lap dances, too,” Liss-Riordan says. “Connecticut law explicitly prohibits that.

“You have to be paid [an hourly wage] and you have to be able to keep your tips.”

D'Antuano, Vilnit and Cruz are suing for back wages. Their case was thrown out in May by Superior Court Judge Mark Kravitz, not because their claims were invalid, but because the contract they signed included a promise that they would not join a class-action lawsuit. They are appealing that decision in federal court. If they lose, it sets a legal precedent that favors employers who stiff their workers. Any worker with a wage and hour complaint would have to fight individually for damages from an employer.

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