COLUMBIA, SC — A group of exotic dancers is suing the owners of three S.C. strip clubs, claiming they should have received an hourly wage under the federal law designed to prevent the exploitation of employees.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Columbia earlier this year, seeks back wages for three women who say instead of receiving at least the minimum wage of $7.15 an hour, they were treated as independent contractors who had to pay the clubs for working there.
The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit is 22-year-old Kaleigh Dittus of Lexington County, who used the stage name Katara while working for Heartbreakers and Platinum Plus. Dittus maintains she was fired after complaining about a system that forced strippers to pay a daily “house fee” of $15, $25 or $35, depending on the shift, and to share tips with managers, bouncers and disc jockeys.
“Without the stripper, there is no strip club,” Dittus said in an interview with The State this week. “I felt like we should be treated better.”
The lawsuit was filed as a class action, meaning other women who worked at the now-closed Heartbreakers or Platinum Plus clubs in Columbia or Greenville could join in efforts to receive double what they’re claiming as back pay.
Federal law prohibits management from taking tips from employees who are not being paid at least a minimal hourly wage, according to Dittus’ Greenville lawyer, David Rothstein, with the Rothstein Law Firm. The suit characterizes the fees as unlawful “kick-backs.”
The clubs responded in paperwork filed last month that the dancers work for themselves as tenants or independent contractors and therefore are not entitled to hourly wages or overtime.
Further, the businesses maintain the women collected dance fees in excess of minimum wage.
Efforts to reach Platinum Plus attorney Chris Lauderdale, with the Jackson Lewis law firm in Greenville, were unsuccessful.
Dittus said she filed the lawsuit after hurting her back on the job and looking online for information about workers’ compensation. She said she discovered that strippers in other parts of the United States were filing – and winning – lawsuits based on the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Dittus started working at Heartbreakers when she was 18 and moved to Columbia to meet her biological mom, she said. She was desperate for work – “it was pretty much my last resort” – but said she also found the fast-paced lifestyle appealing.
Despite being underage, Dittus claimed she was allowed to get “pretty much wasted” every night to make it easier for her to perform.
“You have to deal with a whole lot of rude guys,” she said. “It was easier to deal with them in a pleasant way when I was intoxicated.”
She worked at the clubs for about 31/2 years, occasionally performing at the Platinum Plus in Columbia and Greenville.
Her income varied.
“There could be a night I worked 12 hours and would leave with $10, or there would be a night I would work two hours and leave with $200,” she said.
But Dittus figured she earned $350 or $400 on a good night at the club.
Her lawyer said that, much like gambling, the prospect of earning a lot of money in a single night by stripping preys on economically vulnerable women.
“Young women are drawn in by this easy money, party atmosphere kind of thing, and they have no idea what they’re getting into,” Rothstein said. “There have been many nights when my clients couldn’t even afford the house fee at the end of the night” and had to withdraw money from the club’s ATM – for a fee.
The lawsuit names Kenwood Gaines as the owner of various companies doing business as Platinum Plus and Heartbreakers. It also lists David Henson as owner of a firm that had Heartbreakers, which closed in March as part of a legal agreement with Richland County.
The club reopened in Lexington County as Platinum West.
Dittus, meanwhile, said she was let go in February after complaining about the club’s system and is working now at a warehouse, earning $10 an hour plus health insurance – less money than she made before, but what she called “promised” money.
“There’s nothing greater than knowing I’m going to work and I’m going to get paid and I’m going to be able to pay my bills,” she said. “Before, it was up in the air.
“Promised money is better than, ‘Oh, I might get lucky one day this week and make $600.’ I know I’m going to make $400 this week.”
Both S.C. lawyers have brought in out-of-state firms to assist them. The attorneys for the plaintiffs list the Lichten & Liss-Riordan law firm out of Boston, while the defendants have brought in Allan Rubin of Southfield, Mich.
There is no timetable for the case to be heard by U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson.