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As she shook her bare backside for the sparse afternoon crowd at Rick's Cabaret, the dancer introduced as Vanessa appeared to be more committed to her work than the typical clock-puncher. But a federal judge ruled on Tuesday that she and her fellow strippers were hourly workers who deserved at least the minimum wage.
The judge, Paul A. Engelmayer of the Southern District, ruled that the dancers who strip to their G-strings and stilettos every day and night at Rick's are indeed employees protected by federal and state labor laws. The ruling came in a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of current and former dancers at the club that Rick's opened near the Empire State Building in 2005.
Rick's, a chain of "upscale adult nightclubs serving primarily businessmen and professionals" based in Texas, argued that its dancers were independent contractors, more akin to stand-up comedians than fry cooks. But Judge Engelmayer was not persuaded. He said the list of rules Rick's laid down could be described as "micromanagement."
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Among the dos and don'ts detailed in the company's pamphlet of "Entertainer Guidelines" were requirements that the dancers work eight-hour shifts at least three days a week, wear stiletto heels at least four inches tall, skip body glitter and cover any tattoos with makeup.
The decision also said the dancers were mandated to "dance your first song with your dress on and your second song with your dress off." Then, while entertaining the customers up close and personally, they were to keep one foot on the floor and could never have both knees "on a guest" at the same time.
On Tuesday, as Vanessa gyrated on the main stage, the other dancers on the day shift appeared to be obeying the rules as they coaxed men into $20 lap dances or to splurge on a visit to a "private room" upstairs — at a rate of $150 for every 15 minutes.
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E. Michelle Drake, a lawyer in Minneapolis who represents the dancers, said the women not only were denied wages, but also were required to pay a variety of fees to the club for every shift they worked. Those fees often added up to $100 or more just for the chance to collect payments and tips from customers, she said.
"These women don't have their own business — Rick's has a business and they work there," said Ms. Drake, a partner in the Nichols Kaster law firm. "Adult entertainers, like every other worker in this country, are entitled to receive wages and not be forced to rely on tips from their customers to make a living."
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She declined to say how much her clients were seeking in back pay, but it would be more than the minimum wage of $7.25 for every hour worked by every dancer since the club opened.
In a statement, the chief executive of Rick's Cabaret International, Eric Langan, said the ruling would have "no impact on Rick's Cabaret New York City, since we changed our independent contractor practices some time ago." He said minimum wages would amount to "a fraction of the $1,000 or more" that some dancers said they earned in a night's work.
The company said its lawyers intended to appeal the decision.