(CN) - Thousands of strippers who work at the Sapphire in Las Vegas are actually employees, not independent contractors, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled.
Citing factors from house rules on heel length to the success of the semi-nude gentlemen's club, a full bench found Thursday that the "economic realities" of stripping make the performers eligible for the state minimum wage of $8.25 an hour.
Six of the roughly 6,600 Sapphire performers, who are not paid wages, had gone to court because they allegedly could not get by on tips and lap-dance fees.
Though a Clark County judge tossed their case, finding that the strippers were independent contractors, the Nevada Supreme Court Justice reversed after finding that Nevada's minimum-wage scheme should not deviate from the way the Federal Labor Standards Act defines employees
Though Sapphire argued that dancers never signed a "contract of hire," and were not "in the service of Sapphire," the state Supreme Court found that "the signed entertainment agreement, which describes in detail the terms under which Sapphire permits the performers to dance at its facility, is an express contract of hire."
Sapphire's "self-interested disclaimers of any intent to hire ... cannot control the realities of an employment relationship," Justice Kristina Pickering wrote for the court.
She added that "Sapphire's protestations that the performers 'never intended to be employees,' and agreed to be independent contractors are beside the point."
The ruling emphasizes Sapphire's concession that semi-nude dancers are "an important part of the business of a gentlemen's club," and the main reason that patrons visit the club.
Unless Nevada switches to a federal definition of employment for the purposes of minimum wage law, confusion about differences between state and federal rules would burden employers, the court found.
Applying the federal rules, Pickering listed several ways that, when considering the "totality of circumstances," Sapphire's dancers are employees.
She noted, for example, how the club exerts control over the plaintiffs' work, giving them only a false sense of control. "This reality undermines Sapphire's characterization of the 'choices' it offers performers and the freedom it suggests that these choices allow them; the performers are, for all practical purposes, 'not on a pedestal, but in a cage,'" according to the 20-page opinion, which quotes the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Frontiero v. Richardson.
As to the other elements of the relationship between club and dancer, the court said the dancers fit the category of employee because they do not have to make big investments in their work. Correspondingly, they do not profit from as much as an independent entrepreneur would, even if they hustle clients for larger tips, the court found.
Sapphire had argued that the freedom it gives its dancers to work at other clubs shows they are independent contractors, but the court said waiters and bartenders enjoy similar benefits and are undeniably employees.
"Thus, the temporary nature of the relationship at issue weighs against it being that of employer/employee, this factor carries little persuasive value in the context of topless dancers and the clubs at which they perform, and cannot alone tilt the scales in Sapphire's favor," Pickering wrote.
Sapphire is regarded as "one of the more prominent and popular strip clubs in Vegas," a former cab driver said in an interview.