Oregon strippers seek new regulations for better working conditions

Reuters/Jason Reed
Strippers in Oregon are employing two lobbyists to push in the state legislature for mandatory health and safety standards, among other improved conditions, in an industry that is largely staffed by exotic dancers working as independent contractors.

Oregon’s heightened free speech protections -- stronger than those which are granted in the First Amendment – have helped strip clubs proliferate around the state, and especially in its largest city, Portland. These rights have also made it more difficult to ensure particular rights for exotic dancers because of the way in which they work.

Strippers are usually contractors without the benefits and legal rights granted to employees. They frequently pay a stage fee or give a percentage of their earnings to club management, bartenders, DJs, and other staff. Additionally, many strippers are young or inexperienced in the world, of work, according to rights advocates. Cumulatively, these conditions can translate to club owners making demands of them that are not in line with their non-employee status.

However, across the US, dancers have rallied to unionize, sue for labor violations, and offer basic support to colleagues in the industry.

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Organized by their local chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, dancers in Oregon are calling for stronger health and safety regulations, including clean and structurally-dependable stages, decent club security, posters that list strippers’ rights, and a hotline – staffed by people who understand the industry – to report any abuses.

"The hardest part about being a stripper is battling the stigma that we are victims that need help from outsiders," Elle Stanger, a Portland stripper active in the effort, told the Associated Press. "It doesn’t matter if you work in education, clergy, any kind of blue collar work — the people who do the work know what the work environment needs."

Although she is pleased with the environment at her club, Lucky Devil Lounge, Stanger said that after five years in the business, she has seen some clubs with substandard conditions that must be addressed.

"Some of the buildings are literally dilapidated and not maintained," Stanger said. "You have entertainers that could injure themselves from broken glass on the stage, poor wiring with the sound system. We just want to get these workplaces up to a minimum safety standard at least."

Claude DaCorsi, club owner and president of the Oregon chapter of the Association of Club Executives, said that while there are some club operators that flout basic protections, most are conscientious and offer a safe working environment.

"We’re here to protect and make safe environments for entertainers," DaCorsi said. "They’re the reason we exist."

DaCorsi told AP that while listing dancers’ rights in the club is likely not a problem, he’s worried that club operators may have to pay for a hotline.

"How did it get to this point where entertainers got fed up to the point where they felt we need to enact a law or do some legislation around this?"

Hired by National Association of Social Workers, two contract lobbyists will advocate for better standards in Salem, the state’s capital.

"Social workers have always fought for people who want to fight for themselves," said Delmar Stone, director of the Oregon and Idaho chapter of the association. "We’re in solidarity with them in achieving human rights, basic protections, not being exploited."

Dancers also want to make sure strippers are not required to get licenses and can work easily as independent contractors, which offers anonymity and more work flexibility.

Yet the lobbyists say achieving mandatory protections specifically for strip clubs may be a tough sell. Their efforts at better conditions may have to encompass all “live entertainment” venues given the state’s strong freedom of speech protections that disallow stricter regulation.

From 1994 to 2000, state voters rejected three constitutional amendments that would have increased the regulatory structure in which strip clubs operated.