Adult entertainers cite workplace hazards in Mpls. strip clubs

The city of Minneapolis may soon tighten restrictions on adult entertainment businesses after a sweep revealed unsanitary working conditions.

Earlier this month, health inspectors found problems at a majority of the downtown establishments. And now, a new University of Minnesota study finds strip club workers have serious concerns about workplace safety.

"Entertainers expressed many instances of verbal harassment and derogatory language directed at them," said Lauren Martin, lead researcher on the U's study. "They also described some incidents of physical assault that occurred from customers, including slapping, hitting, groping, restraining and choking."

Martin told a city council committee Monday that workers often feel unsafe — especially during one-on-one interactions with customers in VIP areas.

The Minneapolis Health Department started taking a closer look at adult businesses following a complaint about cleanliness at one of them.

Ultraviolet flashlights in hand, inspectors conducted a sweep of all 17 establishments — many of which are along Hennepin Avenue. They found "stains of concern" at many. Further testing confirmed conditions were unsanitary inside private and semi-private areas of 11 of the businesses.

The complaint also prompted officials to commission a study by the University's Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center. Last fall and winter researchers interviewed two dozen strip club workers. They set up an anonymous online survey to hear from others.

Workers told researchers one of their other big concerns is economic. Martin said performers are independent contractors and don't have employee benefits. At the same time they're expected to pay fees to their clubs, and must share anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of their earnings with co-workers.

"They are tipping pretty much all of the club staff including paid employees of the club," said Martin. "That includes managers, bouncers, servers, wait staff, et cetera."

Other worker concerns include poor training and unclear expectations, little help for on-the-job injuries, and pressure from customers to drink alcohol.

Nevertheless, researchers emphasized that many people choose to work in strip clubs and enjoy performing. Entertainers told researchers they like the flexible schedule and opportunity to earn up to $1,000 a night.

Tawnya Konobeck, a longtime burlesque performer, collaborated on the U's study. She has also worked in strip clubs. Konobeck said better city oversight could improve safety for entertainers — most of whom fear speaking up.

"If you're the one who reaches out to an official, to the police or whatever, you could easily lose your entire livelihood. You will be blacklisted from working at any of the clubs if word gets out," said Konobeck. "Yes, they're all in competition with one another, but there's a handful that are run by the same companies, and if you get fired from one, word spreads fast."

Entertainment businesses said researchers set about their work with an anti-strip club agenda, but still had to admit they found little evidence of sex trafficking or prostitution.

Attorney Randall Tigue represents five Minneapolis adult businesses and has advocated for the industry for decades.

"I don't believe that either the report or the health department findings call for any significant new action with respect to adult entertainment businesses," Tigue said.

He said any effort by business owners to fight new regulations will have to wait until they know what city leaders plan to do.

Council Member Cam Gordon said the city doesn't have the power to shut down the establishments entirely, but can regulate them. Gordon said he and other officials are still figuring out their next steps, but the matter could go before the full City Council sometime next month.

"We've already identified two potential ordinances that could be looked at, but particularly we're looking at our ordinances that have to do with health nuisances, and we're going to look at that," Gordon said. "We also do license these businesses, so we're going to be looking at that as well.