August 12, 2009

Independent Contractors: The Bare Essentials

The King Arthur Lounge in Chelsea, MA does not exactly bring to mind the Knights of the Round Table. It's a tough place in a tough town - a strip joint with a motel attached (don't ask, don't tell). The strippers had to work under some pretty difficult conditions. They were hired as independent contractors. They paid a $35 fee for every shift. There were no wages, just customer tips. They provided their own (easily removable) costumes. When they moved to the darker regions of the bar and provided "private shows" (please don't ask, don't tell!), they had to turn over one third of their earnings to management.

Jonathan Saltzman tells the story in the Boston Globe: About 70 strippers, led by Lucienne Chaves, a 32 year old former stripper, filed suit, alleging in a class action that they were not independent contractors, but employees entitled to minimum wages and benefits. Their lawyer, Shannon Liss-Riordan, compared the strippers to indentured servants: "They weren't making any wage. Imagine a restaurant where a waiter has to pay to come to work and hand over a portion of the tips."

Robert Berluti, King Arthur's lawyer, countered that some strippers made hundreds of dollars a shift. He argued that the strippers were truly independent contractors, picking their own music, costumes, partners and routines.

Judge Frances McIntyre did not buy management's argument. "A court would need to be blind to human instinct [indeed!] to decide that live nude entertainment was the equivalent to the wallpaper of routinely-televised matches, games...and sports talk in such a place. The dancing is an integral part of King Arthur's business." She went on to say that the club hired and fired strippers, determined their hours and made hiring decisions solely on looks. In other words, the strippers were employees.

Mr. Berluti lamented the burden of overcoming Massachusett's strict standards for independent contractors. "This was a case where the judge was saddled with a MA law that makes it an outlier with respect to the rest of the country." Does Berluti really think the outcome would have been different if the law had been more ambiguous?

Debt Collection
The strippers have been awarded thousands of dollars in damages. It will be interesting to see if they can collect. As noted above, King Arthur's Lounge is a tough place. Back in 1982, there was an argument between Alfred Mattuchio and an off-duty Everett MA police officer named John McLeod. The cop left the lounge and returned with several fellow officers, armed with nightsticks, baseball bats and tire irons. They attacked a dozen patrons and employees, one of whom was beaten to death. Four cops were indicted and three were convicted. The Insider wonders which, if any, of the King Arthur employees injured in the fracas collected workers comp.

The chivalry of the original Round Table still lives in some places, but not, alas, in the dank recesses of King Arthur's Lounge.

| 1 Comment

1 Comment

Actually Jon, I find this ruling highly surprising and wonder if it is due to differences in Massachusetts law. I've known a few girls in the industry (so to speak) and generally speaking they are regarded as independent contractors, not employees. I always thought that was industry standard. Not that I disagree with the ruling, but I have a feeling that it is more the exception than the norm.

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This page contains a single entry by Jon Coppelman published on August 12, 2009 10:59 AM.

Can you hear me now? Work-related injuries for musicians was the previous entry in this blog.

Cavalcade of Risk, Downunder style is the next entry in this blog.

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