Zipporah Foster isn't finished yet.
The 28-year-old exotic dancer from Gresham is filing lawsuits against Portland-area strip joints faster than a drunk can throw singles. Foster is already suing three clubs where she's worked (see "Strip Fees," WW, July 1, 2009). Next up is Shimmers, a Southeast Portland dive she plans to sue as early as this month.
The suits, all filed since June, allege Foster should have been paid the state's minimum wage of $8.40 an hour for her time at the pole. Instead, most strippers nationwide dance for tips only. On top of that, they're often expected to pay the club a "stage fee" for each shift—and tip out the bar staff.
Foster, who goes by the stage name "Mocha," insists strippers deserve to be paid like any other worker. She and other dancers around the country are beginning to take a stand, and a handful have successfully sued for back wages.
"A lot of dancers, because they [club owners] try to make you feel low about what you're doing, they [dancers] don't have knowledge that this is wrong," says Foster, a single mom who grew up in Sacramento.
Foster's litigious streak cuts to the heart of the industry's economic model, which does not compensate its most valuable and visible workers. Portland's exotic clubs, like their counterparts nationwide, classify dancers as independent contractors instead of employees.
But as dancers have noted, they can be fired for failing to show up for a shift or leaving early. They're also often tightly controlled—down to the schedule they work, the time they spend onstage, the music they dance to and the amount they charge for a lap dance.
What sets Foster apart—and gives her the insouciance to sue—is that she doesn't fear retaliation. After 10 years in the business, she wants out, perhaps to become a psychologist or a backup singer.
"It's hard just to start all over," Foster says. "I'm looking for a backup plan, but right now I'm a dancer."
She currently works five nights a week at Doc's Club 82 on Southeast 82nd Avenue. Foster says her situation there is better than at prior clubs.
Since WW wrote about her first lawsuit last summer, Foster says a handful of Portland clubs, including Doc's, have stopped charging stage fees and started treating their dancers with more respect.
By Foster's account, Shimmers was a different story. At the working-class club on Southeast Foster Road, Foster says she was charged a $10 stage fee and faced hostile bosses. Foster says she was fired last month for going home early, after a manager learned she was suing other clubs.
So far, Foster is suing Exotica International Club for Men in Northeast Portland, the Safari Showclub in Southeast Portland, and Stars Cabaret & Steakhouse in Beaverton, seeking a total of $165,500 in back wages and lost stage fees. None of the clubs has settled, and the Exotica suit is now set for trial in February.
Shimmers owner Tom Webb says he charges a stage fee only if dancers leave early or skip a shift—a claim Foster disputes. He says Foster and a fellow dancer who plans to join her lawsuit against Shimmers were fired for poor attitude.
"They're just out to try to make some money," Webb says. "They're gonna wind up losing, and they won't be able to dance anywhere in Portland."
Foster says she wouldn't miss the work.
"I love to dance," she says. "I love doing pole tricks. But I don't like all the power trips."
Shimmers, then known as Tommy's III, was the site of a murder when Earl Richard Barker was shot dead outside the door on Aug. 23, 2008. Barker was at the club visiting a dancer named Cinnamon. The crime is still unsolved.