Exotic dancers sue strip club for worker exploitation

Update: The lawsuit against Fantasy Gentlemen's Club in Grand Junction has been settled. Get more information in our post headlined "Shotgun Willie's Ex-Dancers Say Strip Club Ripped Them Off in New Lawsuit." Continue for our previous coverage. Four exotic dancers are suing a Grand Junction strip club, claiming the venue and its owner, Kevin Eardley, are breaking labor laws via a payment structure that includes exorbitant fines for a whole range of actions — such as ponying up $50 plus increased stage fees if a customer touches a dancer's vagina.

Eardley calls the suit bogus and maintains that he's following standard practices. But the attorney representing the women says the club takes the sort of mistreatment that's rife in the industry to another level.

Attorney Mari Newman acknowledges that "exploitation of dancers is not unique" to Fantasy Gentlemen's Club, which launched three years ago and is currently the only operation of its type in Grand Junction, "but they have a few particularly bad practices that make them stand out."

Hence, the lawsuit, on view below in its entirety, which was filed in U.S. District Court under the names of four women who've worked at Fantasy: Allison Stebbing, Jamie Tencza, Michelle Cross and Jessica Mason.

The women weren't classified as employees of Fantasy. Rather, they were listed — improperly, in Newman's view — as independent contractors. Eardley explained the process to Grand Junction's KREX-TV like so: "Well, you sign a lease contract saying you're a tenant — so you're leasing space from the club to work. You come in and pay your house fee — that varies on what night you come in — and then you get to keep your tips on anything above that."

Newman's response? "They say the relationship between the dancers and the club is like a hairdresser who leases space to work in a salon. But that's not what the relationship is, because of the degree of control the club asserts over them. If they were truly independent contractors, they could come and go as they please; they wouldn't be charged for switching their shifts — and they certainly wouldn't be be required to pay the other employees."

As Newman explains, "dancers have to pay fees to work, and those fees come in two forms: a stage fee, which is up to $80 for each shift, and then fees to dance in the private rooms. And they don't receive a salary. They are paid exclusively by patron tips, but they're not allowed to keep all of those tips. Instead, the club forces them to share a portion of the tips to the DJs and bouncers. So effectively, the club is using the dancer's tips to pay part of other workers' salaries."

Here's a photo from the suit showing posted house rates....

...and another image noting a required 7 percent cut for DJs and security, respectively. The note also includes behavioral do's and don'ts such as "NO CONTACT WITH PATRONS AT ANYTIME!!!," "NO touching your breasts, nipples, butt, or vagina," "NO simulating masturbation," "NO licking your nipples. NO touching or crotch diving of any patrons at any time," and more: Another photo shows the rates for the private "champagne" rooms, and the club's piece of the action: And then there are the fines, which strike Newman as unreasonable in the extreme. Continue for more about the exotic dancers' claims against Fantasy Gentlemen's Club, including more photos, a video and the complete lawsuit. As Newman sees it, dancers are faced with "countless arbitrary fines that the club imposes totally at its whim." For instance, the women are "fined $100 if you switch your schedule with another dancer and $80 if you're sick, even if you have a doctor's note."

This photo spells out the specifics:

Additionally, Newman goes on, "you're fined $50 if you're touched inappropriately by a patron — and then, on top of that, your stage fee goes up."

The following image from the lawsuit speaks to this last point. It's a little tough to read, but the "Full Nude Rules" begin with the following:

Do Not touch your vagina Do Not let customers touch your vagina Do not touch anyone's vagina Or get fined $50 And your stage fee goes up $20 No Exceptions!
Here's the pic:

Another fine is threatened for malingering. The lawsuit image pertaining to this subject is blurry, too, but it reads, "If you have paid your fees and are ready to work, you need to be on the floor. No hanging out in the dressing room. If you get caught in the dressing room, you will be fined."

Here's that photo:

Also verboten is what's described generically as either "complaining" or "your bullshit." The photo from the suit showing that note is here: Continue for more about the exotic dancers' claims against Fantasy Gentlemen's Club, including more photos, a video and the complete lawsuit. As Newman sees it, these assorted rules add up to the equivalent of "modern-day indentured servitude." For instance, "if the club is slow and they don't make significant tips, they still have to pay all these fees — and they may have to pay back fees, because they aren't able to make up the money. So in the worst cases, they could end up owing money."

Frustrated by this situation, the four dancers reached out to Newman, who credits them for doing so. "This is an industry where many employers believe they can exploit these workers because they're vulnerable, because there's a stigma attached to the kind of work they're doing, and because they don't have ready access to the legal system. So I think these women are very brave for coming forward."

Some aspects of the case remain unclear. From what Newman understands, the dancers signed some type of agreement before they were allowed to work there, "but the owner will not let any of them have a copy of it. He says they all have a binding contract, but none of them is allowed to see what it says, even though they've asked. And the club has already begun retaliating against them. They've been told they are no longer allowed to work there, which is another violation of the law, and the owner has been making specific threats against the workers, which will be the subject of additional legal claims we bring against him and the club."

Eardley tells a very different story. In his interview with KREX, he characterizes the suit as retaliation against him, by a dancer who was fired. He added, "three of these girls haven't worked [at Fantasy] in, I would say, well over a year. And the fourth one actually just tried to work a couple nights ago...and she said she'd forgotten about the lawsuit completely."

No one else has — and Newman believes Fantasy has committed employment violations no matter what the unseen document says.

"In our labor laws, there are certain rights you can't contract away, and that's for a good reason," she allows. "Employees are inherently in a lower position of power than the employer. That's why our laws say, 'You have certain rights, and an employer with more power than you can't make you sign them away.'"

Here's the lawsuit, followed by the aforementioned KREX-TV report.

Fantasy Gentlemen's Club Complaint and Jury Demand

More from our Business archive: "Photos: See plans for the new, improved Shotgun Willie's."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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