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Lawmakers question safety conditions at exotic dance clubs

December 4, 2018

OLYMPIA – As an industry, exotic dancing doesn’t seem to have many problems with workplace health and safety complaints, state records suggest.

Some dancers who have been in the industry for years told a House committee Monday they disagree, and that the state would find problems with safety and cleanliness if they look.

During the past 18 years, 17 exotic dancing “clubs” have had 68 workers compensation claims, mostly from muscle strains, slips and falls, an official from the Department of Labor and Industries told the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee. A few have been from other things like broken glass, fights or falling tables.

Labor and Industries have only responded to five safety-related complaints in the past 10 years, all of them “low severity” and handled by phone or fax without violations being issued, said Chris Bowe, the department’s assistant director for fraud prevention and labor standards. No fatalities or injuries requiring hospitalization were reported.

The state doesn’t make regular inspections, Bowe said, it relies on complaints.

But dancers told the committee they are discouraged from reporting incidents or fired when they do.

Aubrey Watkins said she has been dancing for 20 years and makes enough to support three sons, including college tuition for the older two. In 2004, she was struck with a gun by two men trying to abduct her, she said. She got away, went into the club and called police. The club manager told her to go home for a few days to recover; when she came back she was told she was fired for calling police.

Aaliyah Topps, who has been dancing for about five years while she saves up to attend chiropractic school, said security is lacking because many bouncers aren’t trained and conditions are unsanitary as bathrooms are limited, sometimes without water and sometimes flooding from overflowing toilets.

“All workers should have a clean and safe environment,” Topps said.

A study in Minnesota found generally unsanitary conditions in clubs in that state, with bodily fluids on many surfaces, said Jeri Moomaw, a former dancer who now works with the non-profit Innovations HTC, which seeks to end human trafficking.

Eric Forbes, the director of operations for the company that operates 9 of the 13 current clubs like Deja Vu, Dram Girls and Little Darlings, said one club in downtown Seattle had its water turned off at times because it was in an area of ongoing construction for the Amazon offices. “It was brutal for everyone,” he said.

He also acknowledged that toilets sometimes overflow, but blamed that on “what the exotic dancers flush down the toilet.”

Like what, Rep. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, asked. Baby wipes, airline liquor bottles, feminine sanitary products, he said.

The clubs don’t provide workplace training for the dancers, Forbes said, because they are private contractors and the club’s lawyers said the company can’t offer them training. For its employees, it posts notices of regulations and numbers to call with questions or complaints.

Winter Finck, a former dancer who now serves as manager for the company’s clubs, contended they were one of the most highly regulated industries in the state, although the regulations come from cities and counties where the clubs are located. The state shouldn’t infringe on their constitutional protections for freedom of speech, she said.

The Legislature could look at laws that govern exotic dancing clubs, clearing up questions about safety, training and whether dancers are employees or contractors, said Committee Chairman Mike Sells, D-Everett.

“There’s not any intent to question your 1st Amendment rights,” Sells said. “The only issue we have is on workplace standards.”

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