No sector of the private workplace is exempt from the federal discrimination laws, including nightclub dancers. A Mississippi jury recently awarded five black dancers $3.3 million in a race discrimination case against Danny’s of Jackson LLC, a Jackson, Miss., nightclub.

The dancers alleged that Danny’s (dba Danny’s Downtown Cabaret), subjected black dancers to discriminatory terms and conditions of employment over many years. The discriminatory behavior included limiting the number of shifts black dancers could work and subjecting them to racial epithets.

The dancers also claimed they were forced to work in a related adult entertainment club called Black Diamonds even though they were not licensed to work there and, they claimed, could have been subjected to arrest as a result.

They claimed that the pay and working conditions at Black Diamonds were inferior, and the security at the club subpar. If a black dancer refused to work at Black Diamonds, they said they were fined and sent home by Danny’s and then not permitted to work at their main job site, Danny’s.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claimed that it spent eight years trying to bring Danny’s into compliance, including prior lawsuits, contempt proceedings and three prior consent decrees, but Danny’s continued to discriminate against the dancers.

This case reveals the sad reality that some employers think they are exempt from the law and that their business is so special and unique that they can escape the legal mandates of nondiscrimination and harassment. This verdict proves them wrong.

Of the $3.3 million verdict, only $130,550 constituted back pay. This shows that the workers were relatively low paid and thus among the most vulnerable. The remainder of the verdict was nothing short of a strong rebuke by jurors, who showed their disdain for the club’s conduct in awarding not just $1.68 million in compensatory damages but also a whopping $1.5 million in punitive damages.

Most employers are doing the right thing, following the law and then, when making a mistake, listening to their advisers, who are human resource representatives or attorneys. Yet too many business owners and employers turn a blind eye to the rights of their workers, especially those who receive low pay. While everyone needs their jobs, many low-paid workers cannot afford even a day or two of losing their wages and their employers know it.

Here, the employer took advantage of the workers and a gamble that it wouldn’t get caught or that the jury would assume that because of the industry, their workers can be treated this way. That’s not how the law works — and this case presents a good lesson to all employers, regardless of the industry, to treat your employees right or it will come back to you in spades — and dollars.

There is never an excuse to discriminate against or harass anyone in the workplace, Every worker — regardless of income or job title — deserves respect and nondiscrimination.

Karen Michael is an attorney with Richmond-based KarenMichael PLC. She can be reached at kmichael@karenmichaelconsulting.com.

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