As dancers, many of us think we have no legal rights, whether because we work off the books or because we are afraid that people won’t take us seriously. But dancers have legal rights like other workers. If you are having a problem at your club, or you have questions about a legal issue, you can get free and confidential legal assistance from attorneys at the Urban Justice Center by calling 646-602-5617.
What is an independent contractor, what is an employee, and what am I?
These days, most clubs classify dancers as independent contractors but do not give dancers the freedoms that independent contractors are supposed to have.
Clubs do not get to just decide that you are an independent contractor. It is a category defined by law. If you have to follow a lot of rules at the club, if the club sets your schedule, if the club tells you what to wear and what to do at work, if there are penalties for being late or breaking rules – you are probably an employee, no matter what the club says. This gives you certain rights explained in the next section. If your club is charging you house fees but requiring you to work a specific schedule and follow a lot of rules, you may have the ability to take action (See “What can I do about labor violations at my club?”)
As an independent contractor…
- Clubs can charge you house fees and other fees.
- Clubs can’t tell you when to work, how to dress or what to do at work.
- Clubs do not have to pay you wages.
- You are not entitled to sick days, healthcare, maternity leave, or workers’ compensation if you get injured at work.
- You can be fired for any reason.
- You have to pay more taxes.
- You can deduct work-related expenses from your taxes. An accountant can help you determine which deductions to claim, and you should keep all receipts in case of an audit.
As an employee…
- Clubs can’t charge you house fees.
- Clubs have to pay you at least minimum wage and overtime, and let you keep all your tips.
- You are entitled to paid sick days and workers’ compensation if you get injured at work. You may be entitled to maternity leave and short-term disability leave.
- You cannot be discriminated against at work – you cannot be given different work, a lower wage, or fired because of your age, gender, race, sexual orientation, country of origin, and many other reasons.
- Your employer should pay payroll taxes on your wages and you should get a W-2 at the end of the year.
- You have a right to be accommodated if you are in a domestic violence situation or have a disability.
- You can’t be fired for talking to other dancers about rights or conditions at the club, or trying to make changes at the club.
What can I do about labor violations at my club?
You can call the Urban Justice Center (646-602-5617) to discuss your options. Their attorneys provide free and confidential legal assistance to dancers and other adult entertainers.
If you are an employee, you may be able to file an individual or class action lawsuit against your club, or report your club to a government agency. In either case, you would have to prove to the court or agency that you are in fact an employee. In an action for labor violations, you would usually be asking for the wages you should have gotten, the house fees you should not have been charged, or compensation for discrimination or other violations. Many dancers in New York and across the United States have done this. Some dancers have won thousands of dollars in compensation.
If a case has been filed against one of the clubs you work at now or in the past, you may get compensation just because you are part of the “class” of dancers. Pay attention to any notices you receive in the mail about these cases. There are currently lawsuits against several strip clubs on behalf of dancers. If you find out a club where you worked is being sued, you may have the opportunity to participate in these lawsuits by getting in touch with the attorneys representing the dancers.
What can I do about sexual harassment and discrimination at work?
Sexual harassment in the workplace is a violation of your rights if you are an employee. Proving sexual harassment as an exotic dancer may be difficult to do under New York law, since the job involves a sexually suggestive atmosphere. However, just because you are a dancer doesn’t mean that you have to accept inappropriate behavior – things like unwanted touching by an employer or co-worker ARE sexual harassment and can be acted upon legally, if you are an employee.
You have a right to not be discriminated against if you are an employee. For example, if you are made to do different kinds of work from your co-workers because of your identity, or if you receive a different wage, or are fired because of your identity, these may be violations of your rights. If you think you are being discriminated against for your race, age, gender, because you are pregnant, or because you have a disability, you might want to speak to an attorney.
Is it legal for clubs to charge house fees?
This depends on whether you are an employee or an independent contractor. In the United States, it is illegal to charge dancers house fees if they are employees, but it is legal to charge dancers to work if they are independent contractors.
I want to file a lawsuit against my club but I don’t want my name in the papers. Can I do it anonymously?
You cannot file a lawsuit anonymously. In some cases, a judge has allowed dancers to join already-filed lawsuits “under seal” so that their names are not available to the public. However, any time you join a lawsuit, at least the club will know who you are. It is illegal for a club to fire you or discriminate against you because you have filed or joined a lawsuit (but of course that doesn’t mean they won’t do it).
You may be able to file a complaint against the club with a government agency, like the Department of Labor or the Labor Relations Board. In some cases, the club will not know it was you who filed the complaint, and your name will not be released to the public. This may be a way to proceed anonymously. You can get compensation this way, but it sometimes takes longer than a private lawsuit, and you have less control over the outcome.
What if my club is raided by the police?
Uniformed police officers can be refused entry to an indoor location, unless they have a warrant. However, sometimes undercover police officers will come into a club posing as customers. They do not need a warrant if they are invited in, even if they are only invited in because the club does not know they are police.
If on-duty police are in the club, they are probably looking for prostitution or other illegal activities. Exotic dancing, even in the nude, is legal in New York, and you should not be arrested merely for dancing.
Could I be arrested for giving a lap dance?
You can be arrested for prostitution (a class B misdemeanor) if you: offer, agree, or engage in sexual conduct involving physical contact with another for a fee.
“Sexual conduct” for the purposes of a prostitution charge definitely includes acts of vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, masturbation, and oral sex.
Some courts have held that some kinds of lap dancing can also be prostitution if it involves the touching of either the dancer’s or the customer’s clothed or unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks or breasts. Courts do not all agree on whether this is prostitution.
From a legal perspective, lap dances should not involve any touching between the dancer and the customer of the genitals, pubic area, buttocks or breasts, but of course every dancer makes her own decisions on the job.
However, a session where a customer masturbates on one side of a glass partition from the dancer is not prostitution, because there is no physical contact.
Can I get in trouble for dancing nude in a club that sells alcohol?
You cannot be arrested for dancing nude or exposing your bottom half in a club that sells alcohol, but a club can have its liquor license revoked if there is nude dancing on the premises. If a club gets its liquor license revoked on account of your exposure, the club may choose to fire or fine you.
Can I be arrested for having condoms?
Condoms are not illegal and you absolutely have a right to carry them. However, if you are being arrested and charged with prostitution, having condoms could be used as evidence. Tell your criminal defense lawyer if the police take condoms away from you as part of an arrest, so they can argue that they should not be evidence.
What should I do if I am arrested?
- First, do not fight back or argue with the police – this could lead to more serious charges and violence from the police.
- Other than your name and address, do NOT answer any questions. That includes questions about immigration status. Instead say, “I am going to remain silent. I would like to see a lawyer.”
- If the police want to see what is in your bag or pockets, say, “I do not consent to this search.” They may search you anyway, but this makes it harder for them to use anything they find.
- Do not lie, give false documents, or a false name – you have one set of fingerprints, and it will come back to you regardless.
- When you are arrested, you usually will spend about 24 hours in a holding cell before you are brought to court to be arraigned. Ask to make a phone call so that someone can meet you at the court.
- You have the right to a lawyer, and if you cannot afford an attorney, you will be assigned a public defender when you are brought to court.
- Always keep cash in a safe place in your space or at a friend’s house in case you need to pay bail.
- Remember that you are innocent until proven guilty. If you feel pressured to plead guilty (even to a lesser charge) and do not feel comfortable doing so, get your lawyer to request an adjournment so you have more time to decide what to do. You do not have to plead guilty, and once you plead guilty it is almost impossible to remove it from your record.
- If you have any questions about what happens in prostitution arrests in New York City, please call the Urban Justice Center at 646-602-5617.
Could I be deported because I don’t have work papers?
If you are in the U.S with no immigration status, you can be removed from the country just for not having status. If you are in the U.S. with a kind of status that does not allow you to work, and you are working anyway, you may be at risk of being removed. Talk to an immigration lawyer (see our Resource section), or call the Urban Justice Center at 646-602-5617.
If you are an immigrant, even an undocumented immigrant, you still have the same labor rights as a citizen. All of the advice above still applies to you! However, before you take any legal action about your rights, tell your attorney you are undocumented so they can protect you.
If you are arrested, tell only your attorney that you are not a U.S. citizen. Don’t tell anyone else. Sometimes immigration officials will visit you where you are being held and try to get you to admit to being undocumented.
If you are arrested, ask for advice from your lawyer on the effect of what happens in court on your immigration status. Prostitution convictions can result in deportation, even if you have a green card.