After a round of dances on stage, one man opted for a private-room performance. So one woman earned at least $100.
Washington’s exotic dancers work under a brutal, chaotic economic model that the state Legislature is thinking about changing. “The whole business model is based on the backs of the dancers,” said Sen. Rebecca Saldana, D-Seattle.
Saldana introduced Senate Bill 5614 to change that, as well as to upgrade safety measures and guard against unfair terminations of their contracts.
The key proposed change would allow liquor to be sold at strip clubs, which Saldana, three interviewed dancers, and Eric Forbes, owner of seven Puget Sound-area and two Portland-area strip clubs including Deja Vu and Dream Girls, say would drastically change this scene’s financial dynamics.
“This bill would significantly change the relationship between the dancers and the establishments,” Forbes told the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee at a Feb. 6 hearing on SB 5614.
Washington is one of a few states that do not allow liquor to be sold in strip clubs. Oregon allows the sale of liquor, which has led to a thriving exotic-dancing industry in Portland.
Alcohol sales are a huge revenue source for the Portland clubs. The 11 clubs in Washington cannot make money from selling alcohol, so they pile fees on their dancers to make a profit.
Almost all exotic dancers are independent contractors, not employees of the clubs.
That means a club does not pay them to dance. Instead, the dancer pays the club to be allowed to dance in it. A November 2020 Washington Department of Labor & Industries report said these “house fees” can range from $65 to $165 a shift, with the average fee being greater than $100.
In a brief interview, Forbes, nephew of longtime, now-retired Seattle strip-club mogul Roger Forbes, said his clubs charge dancers basic house fees — and nothing else. Tips that dancers pay to security people, DJs and servers are strictly voluntary, he said.
Three dancers who talked to Crosscut strongly disagreed with Forbes’ characterization, and their information was reinforced in the L&I report, which included input from eight anonymous dancers. Two interviewed dancers – Madison Zack-Wu and Lexy, who did not want her last name used – are point people for a Seattle-based dancers association, Strippers Are Workers, which is pushing for SB 5614. Zack-Wu was campaign manager for the effort.
Every time a dancer takes a customer to a private room, the club takes a cut of what the dancer earns there, they said. A photo of the private-room rates at one Washington club show the establishment taking $75 of a $200 fee for 15 minutes, $120 of a $360 fee for a half hour, and $150 of a $500 fee for an hour.
Spokane’s Deja Vu also demands that dancers sell a specific number of drinks every night. If the dancer does not, she has to pay the difference to the club, Zack-Wu said. In some cases, if a dancer chooses to work fewer shifts a week, the club will increase her house fees for each shift. One club charges a dancer $20 every time she steps outdoors, she said.
The dancers spoke of one customer who paid for a private room with a credit or debit card, then stopped payment on the card saying they were unhappy with the performance. The dancer has to pay the club for the stopped payment, Lexy said.
“The club can take 10 percent to 60 percent [of a dancer’s earnings] in one night. It’s all over the map,” Lexy said.
In the L&I report, one anonymous dancer said: “The worst part about this job in Washington is the astronomically high house fees. It’s exploitation of desperate women and it’s unreasonable. Because of the high house fees, I have often worked an 8-12 hour shift and left the club with less than minimum wage or even ‘in the hole’ because I now owe the club back rent. It’s like gambling every time I work. Will I make money that day or will I lose more than I walked in with?”
Hovering over dancers on slow nights is the threat of “back rent.” If a dancer cannot make enough money to pay her house fee, the unpaid amount is carried over to her next shift to be paid then. A slow night could lead to a dancer paying a higher house fee on her next shift. “This practice of charging back rent is clearly predatory,” said a second anonymous dancer in the L&I report.
Forbes said the back rent has not been a major issue at his clubs, adding that his organization has never sued a dancer for unpaid fees.
Zack-Wu, Lexy and a third dancer named Ashe contested Forbes’ claim that tipping is a voluntary arrangement among dance and staff members.
“Management in Washington tends to be indirect about demanding tips. However, it is common knowledge that you will be reprimanded, punished, or fired for not tipping. Maybe the manager bullies you or skips putting you on stage, maybe the DJ refuses to play your music of choice, maybe you are refused good shifts, maybe security won't walk you to your car after your shift and it is clear it is because you do not tip, or don't tip enough,” Zack-Wu said.
The group Strippers Are Workers recently surveyed 39 dancers about tips. Thirty-three said they were at least strongly encouraged to tip other club staff; 28 said they were outright pressured to.
Two people in club management served on the advisory committee with the eight dancers and L&I officials to prepare the L&I report. An unnamed top Deja Vu manager, who began her career as an 18-year-old dancer, was quoted in the report as saying that the dancers’ concerns about financial burdens from club fees are overblown:
“With rent of $150, an obligation can be fulfilled with as little as 15 minutes of performance, after which the entertainer retains all income and tips she receives. While there are additional fees for use of a VIP room, an entertainer can expect to receive at minimum net compensation of $100, $200 or $300, depending on the length of the VIP Room time being purchased (15 minutes to one hour).”
Later in the L&I report, she wrote: “Contrary to the comments made by entertainers on the committee, it is not an accurate portrayal to say that entertainers often leave with no money or still owing lease fees the majority of the time. Entertainers more often than not leave with substantial amounts of cash that far exceed what they would have earned had they been paid as a minimum wage employee. I know this, in part, as a result of my personal experience as an entertainer.”
A third anonymous dancer told the advisory committee for its report: “There were also nights that I did make money, but because of VIP fees & other charges, I would pay the club up to $500.”
Forbes said that when his clubs hire a new dancer, they give them a choice of being an employee or an independent contractor. As an employee, a dancer makes an hourly wage.
This choice was prompted by a $6.5 million settlement in 2017 of a lawsuit in federal court in California by 64 Deja Vu clubs scattered across 18 states. (Forbes’ clubs are part of a bigger Deja Vu empire of 200 clubs across 40 states.) Dancers alleged that being independent contractors led to losing money on shifts or making less than minimum wage.
In 2019, a Bloomberg Law review of federal courts found 406 wage-and-hour lawsuits filed nationwide by dancers from 2005 to 2019. Dancers won 13 cases and the clubs won two. Most of the rest were settled, withdrawn or dismissed.
Consequently, Forbes’ clubs offer dancers a choice of being wage-earning employees or independent contractors. Almost all dancers choose to be independent contractors, according to interviews.
The reasons that women stay on the job and want to remain independent contractors included the flexibility and earnings on good nights. Dancers can schedule their shifts to fit around their lives, the interviewed dancers said.
“This job’s financial freedom allows me to choose my child care provider and be away from my kids much less,” a dancer told L&I. The bad nights are countered by the massive amount of cash that a dancer can earn on a crowded night, the dancer said.
Lexy agreed: “The full flexibility is unparalleled … You can make rent in one night.
“I started working as a dancer because with two minimum-wage jobs, plus tips, I was working 60 hours a week and still struggling to pay rent, and I had to go to the food bank for food. Dancing saved me from poverty,” a third dancer told the advisory committee for its report..
Both the clubs and the dancers say selling alcohol will help them, by making the clubs less dependent on dancer fees and by attracting new customers interested in socializing with friends with strippers in the background.
In the L&I report, another dancer said: “It prevents dancers from selling to customers who really just want to have someone to sit and drink with and chat, as opposed to going for private dances or champagne rooms. It drastically limits the social activities available in the club to almost nothing, or forces some dancers to engage in more sexual behavior, since there aren't more appropriate things to do, like sitting and having a drink together.”
Allowing alcohol would result in more government oversight of clubs through liquor licenses from the Washington Cannabis and Liquor Board. Today, a lot of customers will have already drunk heavily prior to entering a club or will sneak liquor in, Zack-Wu, Lexy and Ashe said. “Customers will drink whether alcohol is there or not,” Lexy said.
Lexy noted the emergence of King County bars that feature ax-throwing. “Even in Washington, you’re allowed to throw axes and drink,” she said.
However, the two club representatives on the advisory committee emphasized that alcohol sales are not a cure-all for clubs’ financial woes. A club would have to assume the costs of buying liquor and paying bartenders and extra security. The L&I report described their stance: “The introduction of alcohol into the clubs should not be seen as a panacea to justify the jettisoning of the concept of rent.”
Seattle’s exotic dancers began working as a group to change laws when they formed Strippers Are Workers in 2018. SAW now has almost 200 dancers. “We have goals of engaging as many dancers as possible. This has been a long time coming,” Zack-Wu said.
SAW was involved with Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, and Saldana when they spearheaded House Bill 1756, which the Washington Legislature overwhelmingly approved in 2019. The law required dancers and club managers to know the rights of strippers, including the reporting of on-the-job injuries. It requires panic buttons in private rooms.
And it created the adult-entertainer advisory committee that created the November 2022 L&I report. It detailed tension between dancers and club representatives over how much strippers have been exploited, with the Deja Vu representative contending that dancers’ complaints were overblown and could not be verified.
That report led to Saldana’s Senate proposal. Besides allowing a strip club to apply for liquor licenses, SB 5614 would:
* Eliminate back rents and cap a club’s share of a dancer’s fees at 30 percent.
* Require L&I to develop training for strip-club employees to de-escalate conflicts with customers.
* Require any termination of a dancer’s contract to be accompanied by reasons in writing.
Dancers interviewed by Crosscut and L&I said sexual harassment and racial discrimination are major problems within strip clubs, and the written termination procedures help document those troubles. “It’s a way for bad actors to actually be held accountable,” Saldana said.
Ashe and Lexy said at least half of male club employees engage in sexual harassment.
Meanwhile, Zack-Wu said structured written procedures might help protect dancers of color. The three interviewed dancers said strippers can be fired for vague reasons when their real offense is defying sexual advances or because management wants to limit the number of dancers of color.
The L&I report said club managers sometimes enforce back-rent rules more strictly against women of color than against white dancers. Also, white dancers are more likely to be given lucrative shifts.”Managers sometimes justify these biased decisions by suggesting they want to avoid having ‘too many’ dancers of a given race, body shape, or age working a given shift,” the report said.
The report said some club policies are implicitly racist regarding both dancers and customers. “Clubs may restrict dancers from selecting rap or hip hop music, claiming it will attract the ‘wrong crowd,’ or ban specific hairstyles, like braids, worn by Black women,” it said.
The Deja Vu representative on the advisory committee strongly denied accusations of racism, or that race is linked to wrongful termination. “The clubs assert that the contracts of three dancer members of the committee were terminated for engaging in illegal or inappropriate conduct – not discrimination,” she wrote in the L&I report.
The representative said the kind of music that has been banned may include offensive lyrics that could lead to complaints of a hostile workplace, while offending some customers. Club representatives also denied banning any hairstyles worn by performers.