A breakdown of the true cost of under-market massage.

This is part two in a series of articles about a harmful trend in the massage industry – read part one here. Unfortunately, at a time when general public is embracing massage for it’s wonderful benefits, an unsuspecting public is being defrauded. They do not understand that they are not getting the real experience, or the health benefits associated with legitimate bodywork. Seeking a low price point, it is tempting to utilize one of the many illicit Asian massage establishments mushrooming all over Southern California. Alarmingly, this is cheap massage at great cost, because doing so supports: human trafficking, tax evasion, and hurts legitimate practitioners. In the end, the old adage is true: “You get what you pay for.”

What is your health and safety worth?

Legal, licensed massage therapists are screened for diseases, fingerprinted and background checked. They take classes in ethics. They are also trained to look for potential rashes and problems and will give you a heads up to make a doctor’s appointment. Additionally, the ability to communicate also means you can easily control the pressure and avoid injuries associated with deep tissue and over stretching. Contrast that with these illegal bodyworkers: they are not screened for diseases (citation 2), have literally no licensing or training. Most do not speak English well, so there can be serious consequences from communication gaps.

How many uneducated workers does it take to equal one professional massage therapist?

What would take an untrained, unlicensed worker multiple, hour long visits to accomplish (such as freeing up tight knots), a professional bodyworker can do in minutes. Professionals complete certification in anatomy, physiology, pathology. In addition to traditional western massage styles, they also learn techniques from Asia, such as Thai and acupressure. in comparison, these black market business workers know nothing more than the routine they are taught. They simply don’t have the tools needed to help you get lasting benefit from your massage.

Isn’t life too short for a substandard experience?

Again, referencing the story above, the room was cold, and there was no blanket. People were talking loudly in the hall, I could hear groaning on the other side of the wall, and the music, although appropriate for a Chinese restaurant, was anything but soothing. A professional puts client comfort as the highest priority, and will have within their reach all they need to provide important amenities.

What is the true price per minute at one of these cheap places? Expensive.

With a $20 dollar massage, for example, most patrons do not realize that the clock starts running the second the worker starts assembling water for the foot bath. Contrasted with the industry standard, an hour starts when the professional begins working on you, and it’s not uncommon for them to give a few minutes more.

In the case of my last experience, what was supposed to be an hour was really only about a half hour because she spent at least 15 minutes running in and out of the room getting water to soak my feet and wiping me down with a variety of construction grade hand towels. So, actually I paid $40 an hour, not $20. If I had not challenged her on the initial price of $30, and if I paid with credit card it would have been $35. That brings the rate to $70 per hour, which is right in line with current market rates of $65 to $90.

What happens to those cheap prices once legitimate massage therapists leave the industry?

Just like what happened in the nail industry, prices in illicit establishments are going up, and certified massage therapists are leaving.

Massage therapists entering the profession right now are simply are having a hard time making enough money. Industry statistics indicate that they make a mere $22,000 per year on average. Some of this I lay at the foot of massage chains who do not pay a living wage. However, no legitimate business can compete with the cheap labor of human trafficking, and these illicit establishments are hurting the industry.

My call is that if nothing is done, and done quickly, massage will go the way of nails. The industry is already experiencing shortages, and massage schools are closing. My alma matter Mueller College and it’s number one competitor IPSB have both shut their doors. As sad as it makes me, I understand why this is happening. Who wants to enter a profession being undercut by lack of enforcement against illegitimate places and the capped salary of franchises? Most massage therapists leave the profession after 5-8 years anyway, and I don’t see that there will be enough people to replace them and meet the growing demand of the public. As it stands now, my opinion is that mediocre bodywork will be the industry standard and prices will go up. This will come at great sacrifice to the American public, worker and tax base.

In fact, it is happening already. In San Diego a few of the suspect places that used to be very cheap have raised their prices. A session in a private room at one of the slightly “nicer” ones cost me $65. This is close to what a legitimate therapist charges, and in this particular establishment I was cold, and subjected to the usual – very predictable routine.

In New York too. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I visited my family on Long Island. My sisters and I checked out Little Bird Spa in Southampton. A few years ago, the price was about 50 dollars for 90 minutes. They are now charging $98 for an hour and half massage. All five of us were pushed to tip and strongly encouraged to pay cash. The sessions were done in a crowded community area. It looked like an emergency room, complete with curved rail curtains and fluorescent lights. Contrast this with what one would get from a professional in the same neighborhood. It would run about 25 dollar more, in a private room, the temperature would be comfortable, and the place would be clean. Most importantly, the therapist would know what they were doing.

In my opinion there is not a chance in hell that the workers at Little Bird had gone to a legitimate school or passed the exam. Not one of them spoke English and appeared lacking in basic massage skills. I tried to poke around in the back room to look for evidence of living arrangements, but was thwarted by staff.

I’m baffled as to how establishments like this are allowed to stay open in New York. It has some of the toughest massage regulations and most difficult testing in the country. I fear that it sends a message to people entering the industry that the laws can be ignored without repercussion. If that message gets out, illicit Asian establishments may prove to be just the tip of the iceberg in a cast of bad characters.

Uneven enforcement of regulations hurts legitimate businesses.

Equal opportunity can only happen when everyone is obeying the same laws. The costs of malpractice insurance, laundry, licensing, certification, training, continuing education, payroll taxes, disability insurance and health insurance all add up to make running a legitimate business quite expensive. When you patronize a business that does not participate in these costs, required both by law and by morality, you’re supporting an unfair business advantage. Massage therapists in private practice and legitimate spas spend a lot of money and productive hours to comply with the law.

Think about this next time someone wants to raise taxes.

Take a look at the desk of a massage therapist in private practice or a spa at tax season and you are sure to see a small mountain of receipts and papers. They are paying income taxes and contributing to the larger economy. They pay for continuing education, business licenses, required industry certification and also spend on high quality products that add to the client experience. These financial contributions help keep our system going in two ways: the collection of tax and supporting local businesses. Contrast supporting your local practitioner with going to one of these illicit establishments. Do you want to patronize a place that is for the most part all cash, does not pay required fees and are documented to be part of human trafficking and money laundering schemes? Next time the government is running out of money and looks at your pocket think about this: How much more would be in our public funds if they were to collect back taxes, fees and penalties from illicit massage establishments?

A lot of money is being funneled out of the system by these all cash businesses.

Here is a breakdown of money lost. This is based on a conservative estimate of 100 illegitimate establishments in San Diego with 10 workers each. This would give us 1000 workers who are not paying into the tax and regulatory fee system.

In our example let’s say they are working 40 hours per week. If the owner was following the law, they would be paying at least $11.50 per hour. The employer would also be paying roughly another $2.50 per hour per worker into the system, and the worker would have withholding too. Let’s round it to $5 per hour in taxes, per worker for 52 weeks a year. 1000 workers x $5 per hour x 40 hours x 52 weeks = 10.5 million dollars in lost tax revenues.

This is by a conservative estimate for workers in San Diego. Think about that number expanded to accurately reflect the state if not the country, and the numbers are staggering. This is money that normally would go to many things that we need and enjoy such as infrastructure, health care or simply maintaining a public park.

Add to this figure above that these workers are often sequestered and not contributing to the local economy. They are not out and about buying cars or even a sandwich at the deli. Massage Therapists on the other hand are very much a part of their community. Illegitimate workers also do not massage school which support the salaries of teachers and administrators. That is a lot of money missing from the local economy. Money that greases the wheels of society and supports all of us having a good life.

Organized crime in illicit establishments?

Pay for a massage at an illicit establishment and support the Mafia, who control much of human trafficking (citation 1 below), and use these places to launder money.

Massage therapists embody the plight of the American worker.

Massage is a healing art, and is under no threat of being replaced by automation. It cannot be produced more cheaply offshore and then imported. As for the massage therapists currently working in private practice, 48 percent of them want more clients, not less. In addition, as people shift out of jobs that are being replaced by automation, perhaps they will enjoy a career change into the field of therapeutic massage.

Here are some helpful tips to reduce this important economic and human rights issue:

  • If you sense a massage establishment might be illegitimate, don’t assume that the licenses on the wall are genuine. Sometimes a few questions will make it pretty obvious. Ask how many hours of training are required? Ask where the practitioner went to school, and what their curriculum included. Ask how long their licensure program took. Chances are, if it’s fake, the answers won’t be very detailed.
  • Ask to see their personal wallet identification card.
  • Contact law enforcement, local and state government.
  • In California, contact the CAMTC. The website is: https://www.camtc.org
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  • Next time you need a massage, make sure you work with a professional, licensed therapist.