How a plan to improve work conditions in strip clubs faltered
The legislation called for allowing liquor sales, among other changes. But opposition to it materialized late in this year’s legislative session.
The adult entertainment venue Dream Girls at Fox’s, in Lakewood. (Washington State Standard)
The now-failed bill began as a workplace safety and pay issue for strippers.
But opponents, including police and prosecutors, surfaced to argue that it is a Pandora’s Box that would contribute to prostitution and human trafficking. Meanwhile, a coalition of dozens of strip club dancers has voiced support for the measure. And the bill’s lead backer says she’s ready to revive some version of it next year, meaning the debate over the legislation is unlikely finished.
“We need a little time and space to analyze what happened,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Rebecca Saldana, D-Seattle.
Senate Bill 5614 would’ve allowed liquor sales at strip clubs.
It also would’ve eliminated back rents that dancers can owe to clubs and capped clubs’ shares of an entertainer’s income at 30%, with tips excluded from the total. Dancers are usually independent contractors, not employees of the clubs where they perform. Consequently, they typically pay clubs $65 to $200 per shift, upfront, as rent, plus a share of their earnings.
Using a private room costs extra for dancers and customers. Since strippers are paid by the dance, a slow shift could lead to someone losing money by not making enough to cover their rent for the night.
Supporters of the bill argue that clubs wouldn’t need to set dancer rents and fees as high if the venues can make money from alcohol sales.
The legislation included a number of other provisions as well, like requiring the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries to develop training for strip-club employees to de-escalate conflicts with customers. It also called for written contracts outlining club fees and for clubs to put in writing the reasons for terminating a dancer’s contract.
After sailing through the Senate and the House Labor & Workplace Standards Committee, the bill stalled in the House Regulated Substances & Gaming Committee as the 2023 legislative session ended.
Since there was no companion House bill, Saldana speculated that House members did not get enough time to understand the measure’s nuances.
Shelley Kloba, D-Kenmore and chairwoman of the regulated substances committee said that, behind the scenes, some House members wanted a closer look at the state issuing liquor licenses to strip clubs.
“It’s an issue that does not exist in a vacuum,” Kloba said.
Interviewed dancers, a 2020 Washington Department of Labor & Industries report, and Eric Forbes, who owns seven of the roughly 12 strip clubs in the state, said alcohol is a major revenue source for establishments in other states. Each indicated the finances of Washington’s clubs depend heavily on charges paid by dancers.
Oregon allows the sale of liquor in the clubs, which has led to a thriving adult entertainment dancing industry in Portland.
At an April 19 briefing before the House regulated substances committee, David Postman, chairman of the Washington Liquor & Cannabis Board, said: “My board and I have no objections to alcohol in an adult entertainment facility.”
However, Postman added that the board needs to look at the bill’s alcohol provisions in the context of the entire legislation—especially with how alcohol regulations will be enforced and the issue of dealing with patrons and dancers in the 18- to 20-year-old range.
Saldana, along with Madison Zack-Wu, the campaign manager for the organization Strippers Are Workers, said dancers and customers under 21 can wear wristbands, noting this is a common practice in alcohol-serving clubs. Strippers Are Workers represents at least 200 Washington dancers in their push to improve working conditions. The group participated in drafting the 2020 Labor & Industries report and SB 5614.
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Dancers, in testimony at hearings, said club customers frequently hit bars prior to showing up, or go out to their cars to drink. Consequently, alcohol is already present at the clubs.
Zack-Wu and another Strippers Are Workers member, Lexy, who declined to give her last name, contended legalizing alcohol at the clubs will bring more oversight of working conditions from the state liquor board.
Two former dancers at the April 19 briefing — Mary Williams and Jeri Moomaw, who are both affiliated with the group WASE Forward, which works on policy to prevent sex trafficking and exploitation — disagreed that serving alcohol will lead to stricter enforcement of customer decorum.
“Alcohol will not increase safety,” Williams said.
The April briefing was the first time opposition to SB 5614 became public.
The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, at that time, pointed to part of the existing law governing adult entertainment venues that they want re-evaluated.
Current state law says dancers can touch their own bodies or be in physical contact with the customers.
But dancers point out that, while the state statute here is broad and somewhat vague, local ordinances across the state are far more restrictive and prohibit touching and physical contact.
“The local ordinances are VERY strict and dancers are getting criminalized constantly,” Zack-Wu explained in an email. Those local rules, she added, mean “dancers are not allowed to touch customers, dancers are not allowed to be nude off of stage, dancers are not allowed to touch themselves.”
Still, the prosecuting attorneys and sheriffs groups raised concerns around the legislation.
“This bill needs an anti-trafficking lens,” said Steve Strachan of the sheriffs and chiefs association. If liquor is served at the clubs, the prosecutors association called for all dancers to be at least 21.
“We know women are recruited out of the clubs,” said Coreen Schnepf, a Pierce County assistant prosecutor who heads that office’s domestic violence and human trafficking group.
Referring to the bill’s alcohol provisions, Strachan added: “We did not find a public safety value.”
Zack-Wu and Lexy said the bill would improve safety for dancers and enable them to keep more earnings. They said they believe opposition to SB 5614 comes from society’s stigmatization of strippers and emphasized that dancers, like other workers, should be entitled to fair pay and safe workplaces.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to correct a comment attributed to Zack-Wu and Lexy. It was also updated to make a distinction between tips and other earnings and to note that local ordinances are generally more restrictive than state law when it comes to touching, physical contact, and other activities in strip clubs.
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