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Require basic worker protections for strippers

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The Providence City Council, under the leadership of President Michael Solomon, is missing a chance to enact real reform in the wake of the revelation that a 15-year-old girl was allegedly working as a stripper at the now-closed Cheaters strip club. Solomon recently proposed a plan that would require “strip clubs do criminal background checks on any new hires, so nobody under the age of 18 gets a job.”

This bill seeks to prevent underage girls from getting jobs as sex workers, which is something every decent person fully supports. An intended secondary benefit of the bill is that it protects strip clubs and strip club owners from minors’ attempting to secure jobs with phony identification. NBC News reports Solomon as saying, “For the most part, I think they’re looking to run an honest establishment and I don’t think anyone’s looking to hire 13-year-olds to strip.”

As the council president said, “Requiring background checks for all employees, as a condition of the license for an adult entertainment venue, will allow owners and managers to obtain reliable information, so that they can be sure they are not violating city and state law by hiring minors.”

Under this revision, performers under the age of 18 will be prevented from securing jobs as sex workers in strip clubs, described by Solomon as “an environment that places them in harm’s way — physically and emotionally.”

What kind of physical and emotional harm is Solomon referring to? For that, we should go to a Rhode Island Hospital study on female adult-entertainment-club workers that ran in the Women & Health medical journal. Here, the physical and emotional harm is defined. “The nature of their work makes them easy prey for repeated unwanted sexual advances and behavior. Add in the prevalence of risky sexual behavior and substance abuse and you’ve got a perfect storm for unchecked health risks.”

The final report was much worse than the researchers expected it to be:

“We went into the study expecting the incidence of substance abuse and other risky health behaviors to be relatively high,” Esther Choo, M.D., said, “but we didn’t expect that many of the women surveyed had never been tested for HIV and in fact were not well educated on the risk factors.”

Many adult entertainment club workers don’t have access to basic health care, said Choo, “meaning they do not have routine physicals, and they don’t have access to physicians for sick visits, tests or preventative measures that could help to mitigate their health risks.”

The amount of protection adult-entertainment performers receive in the workplace is already practically nonexistent. While waitresses and bartenders might make minimum wage, the onstage performers in Rhode Island strip clubs are considered independent contractors, and pay the club for the privilege of being on stage and collecting tips. A Journal article from 2002 (“The sex business in Providence,” April 21) mentioned that performers pay “$25 for a night shift; $15 for a day shift” for “the privilege to disrobe in front of ogling men.” That was 10 years ago.

The advantages of hiring performers as independent contractors to the owners of the strip club are many. The practice reduces “expenses, payroll, benefits and other overhead.” Under this system, employers avoid providing their workers health benefits. They can also cut or add performers as needed, meaning that performers have no job or economic security. Also, the performers in strip clubs are not eligible for worker’s compensation coverage, because the law does not require employers to purchase coverage for independent contractors.

Council President Solomon is proposing to close a loophole to protect minors from a “physically and emotionally” harmful environment, but he has proposed nothing that would protect women from the economic predation of the strip-club owners. If Solomon and the Providence City Council are serious about protecting the public, they could do so by making sure that performers working at such clubs are treated as employees, and mandate decent payment, TDI and comprehensive health care, “as a condition of the license for an adult entertainment venue,” to quote the City Council president.

Of course, strip-club owners would balk at such a suggestion, but if the economics of the local strip-club economy are to be believed, they could well afford it. Cheaters, the strip club at the center of this controversy, is on the market for $8 million. Part of the advertising says, “This is an outstanding business opportunity that offers cash flow in excess of $2.5 million!” That’s $2.5 million annually. If, as Solomon says, these business owners are interested in running “an honest establishment” their outcry should be minimal.

The strip clubs can afford this, the performers at the clubs need this, and our citizenry should, out of decency and fairness, demand this.

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