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California and the West

Exotic Dancers Say Bill Would Strip Them of Rights

Legislation: Women go to Capitol to argue against measure that would reclassify adult entertainers as independents. Labor groups also oppose it.

May 12, 1999|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — On one recent spring day, there was nothing out of the ordinary about the three women in business dress knocking on legislators' doors here.

Nothing except their lobbying pitch: They wanted to protect the livelihoods of hundreds of exotic dancers like themselves who perform throughout the state.

The women walked the halls of the Capitol to oppose legislation that they say would strip exotic dancers of their rights as employees under state law.

"We left the G-strings . . . and platform high heels at home," joked a dancer named Daisy Anarchy, who joined two other performers in appealing to lawmakers to defeat the proposal.

The target of their scorn is a measure, AB 1446, by Assemblyman Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa) that would reclassify adult entertainers as independent businesswomen. It is scheduled to be heard today by the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee.

A lobbyist for clubs where the performers work--nude, bikini-clad or in between--said the dancers are independent contractors and state labor codes should treat them that way.

"We have no control over the dancers. We provide a place for them to do their thing," said Michael Ross of the California Cabaret Assn., which favors the measure.

Granlund described his measure as "a work in progress," a first step toward revamping the rules for the dancers and other cabaret entertainers.

The third-term San Bernardino County lawmaker said his eventual goal is to ensure that adult entertainment clubs employ only performers over 21 who don't have records for prostitution or other crimes.

The measure is opposed by the California Labor Federation, the Service Employees International Union and other labor groups that see the legislation as a step in the wrong direction.

In fact, critics say, Granlund is trying to turn the law on its head. "Nothing in this bill deals with underage dancers," said Miles E. Locker, chief counsel for the state labor commissioner.

"The only people I suppose who have a need for a bill like this are the theater owners, because it would vastly improve their bottom line. . . . They wouldn't have to pay these dancers minimum wage, overtime, workers' compensation" and other benefits, Locker said.

Dancers who are critical of the proposal say that until a decade or so ago, they were paid minimum wage and, like restaurant workers, received tips--but then club owners began charging them stage or license fees to perform.

Angered by poor working conditions and a lack of health benefits, peep show dancers at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco--in a widely publicized action--voted to unionize and become members of the Service Employees International Union.

A year later, Locker issued an opinion that the working conditions of topless entertainers were controlled by the clubs, creating an employee-employer relationship with the performers.

Late last year, a San Bernardino County jury decided that two former dancers were club employees and awarded them $57,000 in back wages and other costs, according to an attorney for the women.

In an interview, Locker said that featured performers--some of whom star in X-rated films--might be independent contractors.

But, he added, most of the performers are house dancers who "basically are financially dependent on the club they work for. That's how they make a living. They don't have an independent business. They don't have the means to support themselves."

He estimated that in the last year, dancers in San Francisco have filed about 20 claims with the labor commissioner for back wages. The decisions were all in favor of the dancers, including about five that were appealed, he said.

Granlund dismissed Locker's criticism, saying that "if he wants to throw in with the adult entertainment industry . . . let him."

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