PORTLAND, Ore. – A Portland strip club that gained national attention for its vegan menu has been withholding more than meat.
Two former Casa Diablo dancers, Matilda Bickers and Amy Pitts, contend in a federal lawsuit they did not receive the minimum wage and were subjected to unwanted touching by customers and bouncers.
They seek thousands of dollars in unpaid wages and damages for battery.
Bickers and Pitts left the club in July after each performed there for more than two years. The lawsuit claims they got paid only with tips or a percentage of a fee set by Casa Diablo for private dances in secluded rooms.
Casa Diablo manager Johnny Zukle is named as a defendant, along with owner Carol Lee. Zukle told the Willamette Week newspaper the women are independent contractors, and the club is not required to guarantee a minimum wage.
He denied the alleged battery and said the lawsuit is “frivolous and ridiculous.” Zukle and Lee did not return a message seeking comment from The Associated Press.
Similar lawsuits have been filed across the country. A federal judge in November awarded more than $10 million to exotic dancers at a Manhattan strip club who were denied the minimum wage. The strip club argued the women were independent contractors.
“It always seemed to me a complete legal fiction that these people who work day in and day out at a strip club are independent contractors,” said attorney Lake Perriguey, who filed the Portland lawsuit Jan. 11. “They’re not occasional workers, like a band who plays one night.”
The lawsuit says the club also exercises control over the dancers, making them more like regular employees than contractors.
Bickers and Pitts say Casa Diablo determined how quickly they must become fully nude and the number of songs a stripper could dance to during each performance.
The club also instructed them how to perform when women were in the crowd, “including bringing the female patron onstage and attempting to get the patron to remove as much of her clothing as possible.”
Pitts said in an interview she danced for six years to put herself through college and didn’t get the guaranteed minimum wage at any club. She said tips don’t always cover stage rental fees and fines accrued for violations such as arriving late or cancelling a shift due to illness.
“It’s certainly possible to leave work in the red, which is not true of any job or industry that I know of,” she said.
She said the court cases in New York and elsewhere played a part in the decision to file suit, after an attempt for an out-of-court settlement failed.
“The misclassification of strippers as independent contractors is something I was aware of for most of my career as dancer,” she said. “Matilda and I did kind of feel there’s a general climate right now of the courts supporting dancers and trying to correct that.”
Casa Diablo is one of the better-known strip clubs in a city that has many. It opened seven years ago and got attention by touting itself as the world’s first vegan strip club.
It made national news in 2013 following the disclosure that U.S. Senate candidate Cory Booker of New Jersey exchanged mildly flirtatious Twitter messages with a Casa Diablo stripper. Booker won the election.
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