Lawmakers back rewrite of bar and nightclub lewd conduct rules after inspection backlash

By: - February 8, 2024 9:38 pm

Strippers with Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, (second from left), who is sponsoring Senate legislation on workplace standards for strippers. (Courtesy of Sen. Saldaña’s office)

Legislation to strengthen workplace protections for strippers has won approval in the state Senate but with a noteworthy amendment attached.

Last month, state and city authorities conducted controversial inspections of LGBTQ+ nightlife venues in Seattle, flagging, among other things, customers wearing jockstraps, and a bartender’s exposed nipple.

The amendment, put forward by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, whose district encompasses the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, seeks to toss out a section of state code cited in the inspections. The expectation is that the state Liquor and Cannabis Board will rewrite the regulations.

“I was quite surprised and didn’t realize until a week and a half ago that the regulation that is the subject of this amendment was still in force. As far as we can tell, the language of it dates back more than 50 years to an era that I think many of us assumed we had left behind,” Pedersen said on the Senate floor, adding that many people felt the inspections were like a “raid from a different era.”

The amendment was adopted. The bill was approved, too, on a 29-20 vote.

There’s tension between how the House and Senate are approaching the strip club legislation, with House Speaker Laurie Jinkins wary of allowing the clubs to sell alcohol.

The state regulations the amendment targets set guidelines for conduct prohibited in establishments that hold liquor licenses, including various forms of sexual contact and nudity.

After the backlash, the Liquor and Cannabis Board — whose officers took part in the inspections — emphasized that it does not target LGBTQ+ venues.

The board also outlined seven steps it would take in response to the criticism, including pausing the enforcement of lewd conduct regulations and having staff prepare a proposal to overhaul the rules. A vote on the next steps with the rule rewrite is scheduled for Feb. 14.

Agency director Will Lukela acknowledged in a statement last week that community members had “stressed the value of these clubs as a safe place for people who often face discrimination, threats, and violence.”

“Message received,” he added.

During floor debate on the amendment, state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said he agreed with Pedersen’s comments on the inspections and that the regulations are outdated but raised concerns about what the consequences would be if they are suddenly repealed.

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, followed up by saying that the Liquor and Cannabis Board “has all the jurisdiction and authority it needs to rewrite the rules and to update their standards.”

The underlying Senate bill would establish security staffing requirements for strip clubs, set limits on the fees they can charge dancers, and require the venues to provide strippers with training on de-escalating situations with problem customers and preventing sex trafficking.

(For more on the issues in play with the strip club legislation, see the Standard’s reporting from last month.)

“Without this legislation, the conditions are not safe. There are harassment and abuse that is happening. But with this, the workers are now empowered to have protections,” Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, the bill’s lead sponsor said in floor remarks.

The Senate version of the legislation provides a path for strip clubs to gain liquor licenses, which is not allowed currently. That prohibition is tied to the same set of regulations that Pedersen’s amendment would overturn. Dancers who back alcohol sales say the change could alleviate financial pressure clubs put on them as the businesses seek to turn a profit.

A similar legislative effort failed last year, with liquor sales in the clubs proving to be a sticking point.

In the House, a different version of the strip club legislation is now pending. Speaker Jinkins has indicated she will only support legislation to update workplace standards for adult entertainers if the bill does not include provisions legalizing alcohol sales in strip clubs.

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Bill Lucia
Bill Lucia

Bill Lucia is the Standard’s editor-in-chief. He’s covered state and local policy and politics for a decade, nationwide for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and in Seattle for Crosscut.

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