IMAGE: Jonathan Hill
She spends two days a week taking her clothes off for strangers at the Magic Gardens club in Chinatown. But the stripper who goes by the stage name “Bogue” isn’t complaining.
“I feel really lucky to work here,” says the 22-year-old with short golden locks, sitting at the bar in her bra and underwear. “I’ve been a dancer all my life.”
Permissive state laws governing strip clubs in Oregon have made Portland a magnet for professional dancers and avid oglers alike. But what’s just as remarkable in this local industry is that Bogue and other dancers not only work for no pay but in many cases actually get charged for showing up.
Like most strippers in Portland and around the nation, Bogue is considered an independent contractor, earning no salary or wages. Instead, she must give the club 10 percent of her $100 or so in tips each night. Other clubs in town charge dancers a flat fee for each shift regardless of how much they make in tips — a setup called “pay for the pole.”
Now dancers across the country less happy than Bogue about their pay arrangement and are challenging strip-club owners in court, alleging violations of federal and state labor laws that require a minimum wage and forbid bosses to charge employees to work.
The latest legal salvo came last month in Multnomah County Circuit Court against Exotica International Club for Men. The Northeast Portland club faces a lawsuit by Zipporah Foster, a 27-year-old woman who says she worked there from 2003 to 2007 without pay. Her lawsuit filed June 11 seeks $43,688 in back wages, plus $64,260 in stage fees and tips she claims she was forced to pay the club’s DJs and bouncers.
Public records indicate Foster lived in Vancouver when she stopped working for Exotica, but she could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Thomas Bond, did not reply to repeated phone messages left at his office in Milwaukie.
Foster’s lawsuit joins comparable cases nationwide, including a federal class-action suit filed June 1 against a Minneapolis strip club on behalf of dancers and other employees. Strippers have been awarded millions in similar lawsuits in Texas and California.
The central issue in all those cases is whether club owners wrongly classify strippers as contractors. Courts have repeatedly found that dancers are actually employees, subject to protection under state and federal labor law.
Just last week, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries ordered the Miss Sally strip club in Umatilla to pay a dancer $10,149 in back wages. Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian ruled the dancer was an employee entitled to wages, not a contractor, because the club in Eastern Oregon demanded she not book private performances.
Local labor lawyers say it’s still an open question whether most strippers are contractors under Oregon law. It may depend on the facts of each case, especially how much control a club exerts over its dancers. But Michael Dale, head of the Northwest Workers Justice Project, a nonprofit legal firm in Portland, says he thinks the law leans toward the strippers.
“The problem for the dance clubs is, they really offer as the core part of their business this entertainment. I mean, you can’t have an exotic dance club without dancers,” Dale says. “I think in most cases there’s a pretty strong argument that can be made that dancers are employees.”
WW spoke recently with dancers from eight Portland clubs and found none was paid wages. Arrangements varied from one club to the next.
At Magic Gardens and Mary’s Club downtown, dancers give the house 10 percent of their tips. Mary’s Club owner Vicki Keller says being contractors gives dancers the ability to choose their own schedule and work where they want.
“They have the freedom,” Keller says. “It’s their choice what they want to do.”
Other clubs charge pole fees or a combination of fees and tips. The most expensive we found was Union Jacks on East Burnside Street, where dancers are charged $50 on weekend nights and expected to tip the bouncer and DJ at least $5 each.
Casa Diablo in Northwest Portland bills itself as the world’s first vegan strip club (see “Boobs with a Side of Soy,” WW, Feb. 6, 2008). But the club isn’t so progressive when it comes to labor policy, charging its unpaid dancers tips for the DJ and bartenders, plus a $1 pole fee.
A dancer there who goes by the stage name “Skip” says she sometimes takes home as little as $40 after tipping out. Other nights she makes $200 using her charms on the customers.
“This industry is based completely on chance and manipulative hustling,” she says. “We have to persuade them out of their wallets.”
News intern Aaron Mendelson contributed to this story.
FACT: Exotica International Club for Men made the news in 2004 when then-Trail Blazers Qyntel Woods and Darius Miles brawled with other patrons there.