An exotic dancer who was shot at a Columbia nightclub is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for her injury, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in what could be a potentially precedent-setting decision for topless performers in the Palmetto State.
The court ruled that dancer LeAndra Lewis was an employee of the Boom Boom Room Studio 54 – not an independent contractor. That makes her eligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits, the court said.
The court did not set an amount she should be paid for injuries sustained in the July 23, 2008, shooting but sent the question back to the S.C. Court of Appeals to decide.
“This is a message to employers of this industry that, if they are going to bring young, often uneducated laborers into this industry to make huge profits, then they need to have workers’ compensation to cover these unforeseen accidents,” said Charles Burnette, a Rock Hill attorney representing Lewis.
A stray bullet struck Lewis in the abdomen after a fight broke out at the Boom Boom Room on Two Notch Road, court records show. The bullet wound caused “severe damage to her internal organs and resulted in the loss of a kidney,” the Supreme Court decision said. She also sustained substantial scarring, prompting her to file a workers’ compensation claim, the court said.
Lower court decisions went against her, but the Supreme Court reversed those findings. Lewis, who is from Charlotte, was not available Wednesday. Efforts to reach a representative of the Boom Boom Room were unsuccessful.
Wednesday’s decision could bolster efforts in South Carolina to classify other topless dancers as employees of clubs that hire them to perform. It also highlights a bigger issue outlined in a series last year by McClatchy newspapers: Many businesses across the country are declaring workers independent contractors, when evidence shows the workers really are employees entitled to benefits.
The Supreme Court’s 3-1 ruling provided a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes world of the topless club business, as well as perspective on the independent-contractor question. The ruling said that the Boom Boom Room exercised enough “control” over Lewis to show that she was an employee, not a contractor.
Among other things, the club dictated when she should dance after arriving for work, chose the music for her performances, required her to perform “VIP” dances for certain customers and specified that she perform topless, the Supreme Court said. The club also supplied a place to perform VIP dances, a stage with a pole, tables and a sound system, the ruling said. But the club would not allow her to take off more clothing than her top and it barred her from leaving work early without risk of a fine, the court said.
“We hold the weight of the evidence weighs in favor of finding Lewis was an employee of the club and is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits,” the Supreme Court ruling said.
Aside from the Boom Boom Room case, a federal class action lawsuit that now is pending says exotic dancers for the Platinum Plus clubs in the Columbia and Greenville areas should be paid back wages for their time performing at the nightclubs. The suit says clubs exercised substantial control over the topless workers, which makes them employees. Potentially millions of dollars are at stake.
“This is very encouraging news,” said Greenville lawyer David Rothstein, who represents topless dancers in the federal case. “The court has clarified the question of whether exotic dancers or strippers are considered employees of clubs, as opposed to independent contractors.”
Clubs often do not pay their dancers, but instead allow them to perform for tips. The clubs then call the women independent contractors. In addition to not receiving wages, the dancers sometimes are not covered by workers’ compensation. It was unclear Wednesday whether the Boom Boom Room dancer was paid a wage.
Rothstein said cases in Atlanta and New York also have recognized the rights of topless dancers as employees.
When businesses declare workers as independent contractors, it allows the companies to save money on taxes and insurance. Companies that declare workers as independent contractors can hurt workers needing coverage under workers’ compensation laws, for instance.
Companies calling workers contractors also can gain unfair advantages against businesses that use employees because contract workers are less expensive. That can make a difference when government agencies look for low bidders on contracts.
An investigation by McClatchy newspapers last year found that billions of dollars in taxes apparently have been lost across the country because businesses have misclassified workers as independent contractors, rather than employees.
The State newspaper last summer found that 24 to 38 percent of the construction companies hired for selected federally supported projects in Charleston and Columbia classified workers as independent contractors, rather than employees entitled to benefits. The newspaper, through the Freedom of Information Act, found that state and local housing authorities in those cities received almost $30 million in federal stimulus money for a half-dozen projects in which workers were declared independent.