Step into any number of bars and music clubs on Bourbon Street, and among the milieu of blaring music, carousing tourists and drinks of all shapes, sizes and colors often wander young women holding flutes of liquor for sale.
And while these “shot girls” work at the bars, they often don’t work for them. Instead, they are classified as independent contractors and aren’t afforded the same wages or labor protections as full-time employees.
Now, a former shot girl at a Bourbon Street taproom is suing her former employer, the latest in a series of recent lawsuits in Louisiana where workers allege businesses have cheated them out of wages by saying they are contractors instead of staff.
The lawsuit, filed last Friday by Genger Cossich in US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, alleges that Fat Catz Music Club violated federal labor law by failing to pay her for the hours she spent selling shots of liquor to patrons at the music bar . Instead of wages, she was paid a percentage of her sales plus any tips she made.
A shot saga
As a shot girl, Cossich describes in the lawsuit, she was required to cajole Fat Catz’s customers into buying rounds of shots that she carried from table to table. However, she said she had no control over the type of product sold nor did she make any independent business decisions, such as how to promote the liquor she was selling. She was required to work a minimum number of shifts each week and had to clock in and out for those work periods.
The case is the latest in a long-running national legal debate over how certain workers should be classified in the so-called gig economy.
Some of the most high profile cases in recent years have involved the ride sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, where the questions have centered around how much autonomy the drivers have. Despite several multi-million-dollar settlements — and a fraught battle to change the law governing contract worker status in California — the issue is still being disputed in the courts.
Cossich’s lawyer, Amanda Butler Schley, maintains that for the shot girls at Fat Catz, the issue is more clear cut than the ride-share drivers’ case because the employer had control over key aspects of their job, especially their schedule, which she said aligns with Internal Revenue Service rules delineating who counts as an employee.
“If you are asking people to be at your establishment from a certain time to a certain time, telling them what to wear and how to do their jobs, then they’re an employee for sure,” Schley said.
There is one other former Fat Catz employee currently who has agreed to sign onto the lawsuit, she said.
Jude Marullo, who owns Fat Catz and several other bars and eateries in the French Quarter and other parts of New Orleans, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Fat Catz lawsuit echoes a similar action brought in November 2020 by a group of exotic dancers against several strip clubs in the French Quarter and other parts of greater New Orleans.
Dancers in that lawsuit claimed that the typical arrangement was for them to pay a “house fee” of up to $50 to dance a six-hour shift and separate fees to club managers and other employees.
The exotic dancers’ lawsuit has not yet been resolved or gone to trial, and “is just moving slowly,” according to their lawyer, David Hodges.
‘Un-level playing field’
Troy Mouton, director of the Wage and Hour Division at the New Orleans office of the US Department of Labor, said that the misclassification of employees as independent contractors is a major issue in Louisiana.
“Misclassification harms workers by denying them legally owed wages and benefits such as health insurance, paid time off and workers’ compensation,” Mouton wrote in a department blog post in November. “Misclassification also creates an un-level playing field for law-abiding employers.”
The construction industry has been a particular target of Department of Labor investigations in Louisiana, where the agency reckons there are currently about 13,000 workers misclassified as contractors and being underpaid and deprived of benefits.
In the five years through 2021, the labor department completed 28 investigations related to misclassification in Louisiana, resulting in over $1 million in back wages recovered for more than 850 employees, according to Mouton.
On Thursday the agency said that it had settled a case whereby more than 300 painters and drywall workers were awarded backpay of $246,000 by two firms for work that included major renovations at the Caesars Superdome.
The investigation found that PL Construction Services and Lanehart Commercial Painting had misclassified the workers as contractors even though they had control over the main aspects of their jobs, and hadn’t paid them required overtime rates.
‘Vehemently disputes’ finding
Brittany Demmon, director of human resources at Lanehart, said the firm “vehemently disputes” the Department of Labor’s finding. It agreed to pay $199,342 in back pay to avoid a prolonged and costly legal process.
“Rather than continuing to invest time and resources in fighting the department on this point, Lanehart made a business decision to pay the monies the department contended were owed and to move on from this matter,” Demmon said via email.
PL Construction Services could not be reached for comment.
Hospitality sector cases
There have been several Department of Labor settlements in the hospitality sector as well as lawsuits, such as the one filed in 2019 against several International House of Pancakes franchises in Louisiana and Mississippi by more than 450 workers.
The IHOP case settled last year for $1.65 million, according to Christopher Williams, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.