Last July, Matilda Bickers decided she’d had enough of Casa Diablo. She had danced at the Northwest Portland strip club for more than 2½ years and was tired of grab-ass bouncers and unchecked harassment by customers.

But the everyday financial cost of doing her job also added up. Casa Diablo—billed as the world's first vegan strip club—charged dancers $20 for every 30 minutes they were late to work, $70 for missing a shift and $10 for not undressing quickly enough onstage.

"At the end, I don't even know how much I owed. Probably like $500," Bickers says. "That was why I finally quit."

Most dancers in Portland are treated as independent contractors. They're paid in tips, and clubs don't have to guarantee a minimum wage or pay overtime. It also means dancers don't qualify for sick leave, unemployment benefits or protections against harassment or retaliation.

Bickers, who's danced in Portland as Red for more than 10 years, found a lawyer.

On Jan. 11, Bickers and another ex-Casa Diablo dancer, Amy Pitts, took what might be an unprecedented step in Oregon: They sued Casa Diablo in U.S. District Court, demanding lost pay and damages for harassment—including unwanted touching—by customers and employees.

Considering her role in Casa Diablo's business, Bickers feels robbed.

"We are the reason the bar exists," Bickers says. "Our labor is the cornerstone of the business."

In response to the lawsuit, Zukle tells WW he believes the "harassment was non-existent." He also says the club isn't required to guarantee a minimum wage.

"These dancers were clearly independent contractors in charge of their own business," Zukle says. "This whole lawsuit is frivolous and ridiculous."

Dancers in Nevada and New York have sued for wage theft, and have won or settled their cases out of court. In October, the Daily Beast reported that Portland dancers and social workers are crafting legislation to clarify employee status for strippers. 

Elle Stanger, who has been dancing in Portland for more than five years, is part of the group working to set industry standards for Oregon.

"People feel entitled to mistreat women or men in the sex industry," she says. "If you show these entertainers and sex workers that they do have rights, that they set the boundaries, you will empower them. We're the ones in our underwear, so we should be able to make the rules."

Bickers and Pitts allege they had to shell out more than 30 percent of their tips to DJs, bouncers and managers in the form of kickbacks and various "fees," such as stage rentals. They're also claiming in court Casa Diablo failed to pay them minimum wage.

In all, Bickers is seeking $111,958; Pitts, $96,318.

"When we start to look at the control the club exerts over the dancers," says Pitts, who performed under the name Rose, "it's really clear that we're not actually independent contractors."

In their suit, Bickers and Pitts allege Casa Diablo told dancers to lure female patrons onstage and encourage them to take off their clothes.

Pitts and Bickers also allege they endured mistreatment and harassment from customers and Casa Diablo bouncers.

"The bouncers would touch us constantly," Bickers says. "I had a particular problem with one bouncer that would grab my boobs, untie my outfits and spank me. And it was just this wear and tear of not feeling like I had any personal autonomy or integrity. Nothing I did would stop him."

Bickers says she complained to management, but nothing changed.

What's more, Bickers says, is she could have been fined $100 if she touched a bouncer.

She says other clubs in Portland may also have similar problems, but she and Pitts are suing Casa Diablo because they say the problems are more serious there.

"It's easy to forget that actually, what's happening isn't normal and would be seriously condemned in any other line of work," Bickers says. "But it is work. It’s hard work. We deserve at the very least a basic level of respect.” 

FACT: Casa Diablo ran into legal trouble in 2012 for inking the edges of $2 bills in its ATM to look as if they had been dipped in blood ("Blood Money," WW, Oct. 24, 2012).