PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – Adonay Encarnacion said she started working in the sex industry about two decades ago.
In a mostly unregulated world where women are viewed as a commodity, it is often the norm for the uneducated and poor to be exploited, she said. Strip clubs use high fees to hit dancers for some of the costs of running the club, she said.
Sexual assault is usually dealt with secretively and it often goes unpunished, she said. Illicit drugs and undocumented minors are part of the dark world, and any resistance is faced with intimidation tactics, she said.
"Fighting for workers rights in this industry means that sometimes you may have to go against some very powerful and corrupt people," Encarnacion, 38, said. "I'm still afraid."
It was while working at Scarlett's Cabaret in Pembroke Park when she said she got fed up. Her frustration fueled a fight that could now result in a $6 million settlement, after a collective action involving 4,709 dancers who worked at three Scarlett's cabarets.
ABOUT CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT
Lawsuit was settled February. Claim forms were sent June 23. The deadline to file claims is Oct. 19, 2015. For more information and access to claim forms, visit ScarlettsCabaretLawsuit.com
"They treated us like employees when it was convenient to them and like independent contractors when it was convenient to them," Encarnacion said. "If they were going to treat us like employees, then they needed to be paying us minimum wage and overtime."
Encarnacion's attorney, Andrew R. Frisch, said Friday that he is "seeking approval" on the agreed $6 million settlement that penalizes owners of Scarlett's Cabaret in Florida and Ohio. Brandon Samuels, John Blanke, William Beasley, who could not be reached for comment, run the Scarlett's in Pembroke Park, Tampa and Toledo, Ohio.
DOCUMENT: Civil action against Scarlett's Cabaret
Encarnacion said that during her battle she has come to learn that the problems that she faced at Scarlett's in Pembroke Park are prevalent in the industry. Many strip clubs nationwide rely on a business model that forces the dancers to pay fees for the use of the club.
The Fair Labor Standards Act: It is also known as the"Wages and Hours" bill. It defined the 40-hour work week, established the minimum wage, and the "time-and-a-half" for overtime.
The Florida Minimum Wage Act: It sets the current minimum at $7.67 per hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.
Interactive Map: The nationwide Department of Labor's minimum wage laws by state as of Jan. 1, 2015.
"Not only are these club owners not paying us fairly, but they are also finding ways of getting a chunk of our money," Encarnacion said. "Say you were doing a $25 lap dance; $5 goes to the house. There needs to be a balance between the rights of the dancers and the club owners. They are taking our rights away ... They are taking advantage of the girls who are not educated ... they are making them sign arbitration agreements."
Lindsay Roth is a sex worker, and a victim's advocate, who is aiming for a master's degree in social work from Columbia University. She doesn't know Encarnacion or the other dancers involved in the legal effort in South Florida, but said that she admires their courage.
Roth said she has met some dancers who are having to give up about 40 percent of their earnings. They are forced to help cover operational expenses and they are set up to share tips with other employees at the clubs in order to remain competitive, Roth said.
WORKERS' RIGHTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Desiree Alliance: Works for the improvement of rights for sex workers.
Red Light Legal: Provides legal services for sex workers and policy advocacy.
SWOP in Tampa: Florida chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project.
Working America: The organization focuses on fighting for affordable health care, retirement security and corporate accountability.
The Solidarity Center: Works around the world to eliminate all forms of worker exploitation.
The Employee Rights Advocacy Institute for Law & Policy: They run a National Litigation Strategy Project devoted to combating inequality and injustice in the workplace.
The National Employment Lawyers Association: Advances employee rights and serves lawyers who advocate for justice in the American workplace.
American Worker Project: Conducts research to increase the wages, benefits and security of workers.
"Club owners have dancers subsidizing the salaries of other workers. After the stage fee, there is the hair and make-up, then there is the house-mom and there is security," Roth said. "Tips are distributed among workers who are not dancing. There is a champagne room fee, and then there is champagne room's host, who keeps about 20 percent."
Katherine Koster works for the Sex Workers Outreach Project, an organization that advocates for the human rights of sex workers and aims to raise awareness on the negative impact of their criminal status in the U.S.
"Disorganized labor markets are fertile ground for the sort of labor practices that victimize low-income and marginalized female workers," Koster said. "Most of them don't have empowerment and are vulnerable at an early age. Most of them just don't really know that they have rights."
Encarnacion said that the dynamic is far more serious in South Florida, where there are many women from Latin American, Eastern Europe and Russia who are undocumented. Encarnacion said she is of Puerto Rican descent, was born in New York and grew up in the Bronx.
Encarnacion said she knows she is not alone, and neither is her lawyer. He had the help of Galvin B. Kennedy and Beatriz Sosa-Morris, of Kennedy Hodges, a law firm in Texas with experience in multimillion-dollar settlements on behalf of strip club dancers who were "misclassified" as non-employees to avoid the legally required hourly pay.
If the court approves the uncontested $6 million settlement, the Scarlett's dancers included in the case will receive a minimum of $102.77 if they performed anywhere from a week to a month. The maximum is $6,371 if they worked 61 months or more from December 2009 to February 2015.
The lawyers will apply for about $1.6 milion in fees and bill for additional costs. Encarnacion, Andrea Wong, Valeria Casillas, Marissa Gall, Roberta Inserra, Patricia Kugmeh, Rachel Stephenson and Brittney Roberts will receive additional court-approved service payments.
"Some of us are students. Others are moms trying to get out of poverty," said Encarnacion. "Dancers are just human beings doing work. We have worker's rights and we have human rights."
Local 10 News made attempts to reach Samuels, Blanke and Beasley, but they could not be reached for comment and did not reply to messages.
Follow Local10.com reporter Andrea Torres on Twitter @MiamiCrime