En Español Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Dancers for Hire at Queens Club Claim Wage Violations

Every
evening into the wee hours, lonely men slip into the dance clubs scattered
under the el along Roosevelt
Avenue in Jackson
Heights, Queens.
Inside, these men, most of them Hispanic immigrants, pay $2 for a dance in
clubs with alluring names like Casanova and La Romantica.

The
busiest is the Flamingo Night Club, where, past the hulking bouncer, 50
for-hire dancers gyrate and two-step until 4 each morning, donning different
outfits for Miniskirt Night, Pajama Night and Schoolgirl Night. On Bikini Night
every Wednesday, the dance floor is jammed, the men pulling the dancers close,
the lights dim, the reggaetón music blasting.

For the
men — construction workers, janitors, supermarket stockers — the Flamingo may
be an antidote to loneliness, an opportunity to press against soft skin, but
for many of the dancers, the club is an out-of-kilter world with bizarre rules.
Several former Flamingo dancers plan to file a federal lawsuit against the club
on Thursday, asserting that it repeatedly violated federal and state wage laws
and cheated its dancers of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In
interviews in Spanish, several former dancers said the owners often made them
pay a $60 or $70 fine when they missed a day of work. Several complained of
having to pay an $11 fee each day just to enter the club and an additional $10
if they arrived a half-hour late.

They said
that sometimes, after dancing from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m., they had to attend
meetings that lasted until 6 a.m. in which the owners held forth, calling some
dancers "puta" (whore) as well as ugly and fat. The dancers’ most serious
complaint was that the club never paid them a cent for their 45-hour workweeks.

"I never
received anything in wages," said Patricia Gonzalez, a long-haired, leggy
immigrant from the Dominican
Republic who quit dancing at the Flamingo
last June. "In my three years there I must have paid thousands of dollars in
fines. And I paid the daily fee of $11 to enter. What kind of job do you have
to pay just to go to work?"

The
lawsuit raises an intriguing question of law: whether the for-hire dancers were
employees, who should have been paid wages for every hour they worked, or
independent contractors who, as the Flamingo’s owners assert, were merely
renting space on the dance floor.

The owners
say they had no obligation to pay wages, asserting that the dancers were
entrepreneurs who made a living by keeping the $2 they earned for each dance.

"They’re
paying to rent the space so they can make a living," said Peter Rubin, a lawyer
for the club. "They can keep all the money they make dancing. They don’t have
to split anything with the house." The club makes its money by charging the men
$5 to enter and $7 a drink.

Mr. Rubin
said the club’s owners, Edith D’Angelo and Luis Alberto Ruiz, who declined to
be interviewed, denied fining dancers for missing days or arriving late. Mr.
Rubin suggested that the former dancers, seeing a potential payday in court,
had concocted and coordinated their stories with the help of an immigrants’
advocacy group, Make the Road New York, that has embraced their cause.

"The girls
have the right to come and go as they please," Mr. Rubin said. "They don’t have
to rent a space at the club."

If the
dancers win their lawsuit, it could have ripple effects at the city’s many
for-hire dance clubs, latter-day versions of Depression-era joints where men
paid 10 cents for a dance. Many of today’s dancers, like their customers, are
illegal immigrants who earn their money off the books. Amy Carroll, a lawyer for Make the Road, said it was ridiculous for the Flamingo to suggest that the dancers
were independent contractors.

"It seems
that Flamingo is doing the worst of both worlds," she said. "They’re not paying
the workers anything, and they’re controlling every aspect of the dancers’ work
life. They tell them what days to work, what time to show up, what outfits to
wear, what makeup to use. They even make the dancers sign in and out to go to
the restroom. That level of control makes them employees, not independent
contractors."

The
lawyers for the dancers — from the Urban
Justice Center
and the Milbank Tweed law firm as well as Make the Road — argue that the $2 dance fees are
tips, rather than wages.

"We are
alleging that the dancers were never paid minimum wage, never paid overtime,
and there were illegal deductions and kickbacks in the form of entry fees, late
fees and sick fees," said Elizabeth Wagoner, another lawyer for Make the Road.

The
lawsuit is alleging wage violations on behalf of more than 2,000 dancers,
waiters and bartenders who the lawyers say worked at Flamingo over the past
three years.

The
plaintiffs also accuse Mr. Ruiz, the co-owner, of battery, specifically of shoving
some dancers toward men so they would dance with them, and occasionally pouring
drinks on the dancers.

"Imagine
having to dance until 4 a.m. after someone poured tequila down your clothes,"
said Floricelda Alonzo, a tall, dark-haired dancer from the Dominican Republic.

Mr. Rubin
denied that Mr. Ruiz had hit anyone or thrown liquor on any dancers. He said it
made sense to require the dancers to sign in and out when they went to the
bathroom and to time them there so they would not use the bathrooms for illicit
sex with customers.

Diana
Trejos, an intense, talkative dancer from Colombia, said she in no way felt
like an independent contractor in her several years at the club. Among other
complaints, she said the women were prohibited from sitting between dances
unless customers bought them a drink. On many nights the management announced
"women’s liberation time," requiring the women to do their next four dances
free as a way to liven things up, she said.

"Wherever
I’ve worked, I see bosses want to take advantage," Ms. Trejos said. "But there
they took it to a whole other level."

She said
she dreaded when the owners ordered the exhausted dancers to attend meetings
that began at 4 a.m. "They’d say we were lower-class, that we’re idiots, that
we came to this country with mops and now we think we’re queens," she said.

Several
dancers complained that they, not the club, had to pay for their nurse,
schoolgirl and cowgirl outfits.

"If you
said anything to complain, you were fired," said Berky Lopez, a former dancer
who said she quit because of kidney problems.

Ms. Trejos
said the job was not all bad. She loves to dance and liked chatting with — and
being admired by — the customers, at least those who did not try to grope her.
But she said the managers made the job miserable.

She said
she hated that the dancers were timed when they were in the dressing room and
bathroom. In the evening the dancers were generally prohibited from stepping
outside to buy their meals; they were instead relegated to buying food from a
vendor who set up shop, selling sandwiches and other items, in the women’s
bathroom.

Ms. Trejos
she said she put up with the job for several years because the money was good,
notwithstanding the fines. She often earned $150 to $200 a night, but sometimes
as little as $50 or as much as $300. (She said she was fired in February when
the management accused her of overcharging a customer, which she denied.)

"I have a
mother and two daughters that I support back in Colombia," she said. "My goal was
to earn whatever I could earn to support my family."

Mr. Rubin,
the club’s lawyer, said many dancers quit other clubs and took jobs at the
Flamingo because the money was better and because the club, unlike some others,
was firm about keeping out prostitution and drugs.

"If
they’re complaining about rules, the only rules are ones that protect the
integrity of the organization and protect the girls as well," he said.