A lawsuit filed against companies that own five of Denver's most prominent strip clubs, as well as similar venues in seven states beyond Colorado, claims that exotic dancers are being ripped off by an illegal system that charges them to perform and forces them to help cover other employees' earnings out of tips they receive, whether they made enough to do so or not.
"Their compensation can vary wildly," notes Mari Newman, the attorney who brought the suit, which is on view below. "It can end up well, or they can end up owing money because of how much they have to pay in fees and tip-outs. So they could work a full shift and end up owing money at the end of the night. And that's outrageous."
The suit targets VCG Holding Corp., Lowrie Management LLLP and Denver Restaurant Concepts, a trio of businesses associated with Troy Lowrie, whose name will strike a chord with longtime Westword readers. Lowrie was the focus of "The Daily Grind," a 2000 cover story, and in 2011, we reported about an incident during which he was swept up in a sting operation and busted on a prostitution-related charge. The matter was subsequently dismissed for a lack of evidence, but Lowrie wound up losing a side gig as a tennis coach for Golden High School because of publicity generated by the arrest. A couple of years later, as we reported, Lowrie took a volunteer position as a reserve police officer for the Town of Morrison, a gig that required him to issue tickets and enforce local laws.
Thus far, Lowrie hasn't commented on the suit. His assorted firms own five Denver clubs — Diamond Cabaret & Steakhouse, La Bohème, The Penthouse Club, PT's All Nude and PT's Showclub — as well as ten additional operations in North Carolina, Maine, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Florida and California.
The named plaintiff in the complaint is Georgina Santich, who worked at PT's Showclub for nine years before being fired on February 13. ("Defendants required Plaintiff to lose weight in order to continue her employment," the suits states; she was later dismissed "because she did not comply with Defendants’ physical appearance requirements.") However, Newman emphasizes that "this is a class action suit against the entire chain. We're talking about thousands of workers who are impacted by this illegal conduct."
As Newman sees it, "This is a case about the exploitation of vulnerable workers. Even though these dance clubs make more than enough money to pay their workers if they chose to, they have chosen to illegally misclassify the dancers as independent contractors instead of employees."
By taking this tack, Newman goes on, the clubs "don't pay any wages at all — not a penny — to these dancers for working. Instead, they charge the dancers to work. There are house fees at the beginning of the shift, an additional $5 for each dance they do for the DJ and another $5 per dance to the club. They charge the dancers each time they use the VIP and nude rooms, they charge the dancers $5 for each personal dance they do. And then they require the dancers to share their tips with the DJs and the bouncers."
The reason this last stipulation is especially egregious, in Newman's view, is that "they're not just charging the dancers to work. They're using the dancers' own money to pay their other employees."
These practices are hardly unique to VCG Holdings clubs. They're common at strip clubs coast to coast. Note that in 2013, Newman brought suit against Grand Junction's Fantasy Gentleman's Club on accusations that dancers were being exploited.
Newman has a theory about why such treatment of dancers continues.
"Because of the stigma associated with the adult-entertainment industry, they believe they can get away with exploiting their workers," she says. "And it's gone on for far too long. People deserve to get paid for their work no matter what industry they work in."
The application of this premise to strip clubs appears to be gaining traction. As Newman points out, there have been a number of recent court victories related to the designation of dancers as independent contractors. A prime example involves Deja Vu Consulting, which owns more than 100 strip clubs and has offered $6.5 million to settle claims against it.
Thanks to these outcomes, VCG and the other defendants in the suit "know full well they're violating the law, but they're willfully doing it anyway because they think they can get away with it," Newman allows. She hopes the current case will serve as a precedent: "It has the potential of changing the face of an entire predatory industry."
In the meantime, Newman praises Santich and the other dancers who are participating in the suit. "They're extraordinarily courageous," she says. "They're taking this on at great personal risk to do what's right for themselves and for other women."
Here's the lawsuit.