On Dec. 13, CBS aired the latest episode of its television program Undercover Boss, featuring Massage Heights Chief Operating Officer Shane Evans. Since the broadcast, massage therapists have taken to social networking sites to ask questions about various aspects of the program.

Evans spoke with MASSAGE Magazine‘s Editor in Chief Karen Menehan on Dec. 17 to address many of those concerns. Although most comments questioned the pay rates of the franchise’s massage therapists, some massage therapists have pointed out that massage franchises provide employment to many thousands of massage therapists nationwide and provide a way to launch a massage career.

According to the broadcast, Evans co-founded the massage-franchise company with her husband, Wayne, in 2004. Massage Heights is a $70-million-a-year business that employees 2,300 people at its 94 locations throughout the U.S. and Canada, and the company plans to grow to 300 locations within five years.

Q: Many massage professionals believe Massage Heights pays its therapists too little, and this television show seemed to affirm that belief, with employees stating they had to work additional jobs just to make ends meet. What can you say about that?

A: If a person is only working a few hours day for a couple of days a week, of course they’re not going to be able to make a living—but I don’t want one or two franchise locations to determine what our reputation in this industry is going to be. I want every location to operate in a way that honors our skin therapists and massage therapists.

One of the things that came out of [appearing on the program] was a Team Member Development Committee. It is our objective to be the employer of choice, and we know to do that we have to retain the people that we have and they have to be happy.

Q: What exactly is that committee looking at?

A: The primary topic is pay structure, reconsidering the pay structure so that massage therapists make more money.

Q: How much are Massage Heights’ massage therapists paid?

A: It varies by location. It’s about 35 percent of the gross. We don’t pay any less than $15 per massage. On average, our massage therapists make about $45,000 per year, and they work about 35 hours per week. But that varies by location. Our therapists [can earn] quite a bit of money based on the types of sessions they do, [if] they get referrals and [if] they perform our elevations, which are our add-on services. [Editor’s note: $45,000 per year equates to 35 massages per week, if the therapist upsells services in order to make $25 per hour-long massage.]

However, we’re in the business of providing convenient and affordable massage therapy. If we drive the cost [of sessions] up to what they were at one time, people can’t afford it; it becomes a luxury to you. So there’s a very fine balance between what you are charging customers and what you can pay massage therapists.

Q: How many massages does the average massage therapist perform each day?

A: That is up to the discretion of the massage therapist. We try to accommodate them and what their needs are, both financial and physical—so we don’t tell any therapist, ‘You have to do six sessions today.’ We ask each massage therapist, ‘How many sessions would you like to do?’

Q: When you were on the show, at one point you seemed surprised that massage therapists only had five minutes between clients to remove linens and reset the table and room. Were you surprised by that?

A: I wasn’t surprised at all; that is exactly what it is. [I had to act surprised to not blow my cover.] We are discussing that for the future, trying to create that good balance for massage therapists so they can get the number of sessions they want, but [also] give them time so they can regroup.

Q: Do you classify your workers as independent contractors or as employees?

A: None of them should be independent contractors. The IRS [Internal Revenue Service] has some very specific regulations regarding that.

Q: How much training do you require of your massage therapists?

A: They all come with their skill set and [certifications]. Some have Swedish only and others have trigger point and deep tissue, but we do take them through a training program that is Massage Heights-specific; it is 18 continuing education hours that we provide to them. They get five days of training.

Q: Do you provide continuing education for massage therapists?

A: We require continuing education on a regular basis, and they get hours for that they can use for their own needs. Many of our locations offer additional continuing education support, so if massage therapists want to go out and learn something new, the location pays for those things. It’s a per-owner kind of thing. You can’t mandate how owners take care of their employees.

Q: How is it possible you were allowed to perform facials and massages on camera for Undercover Boss, when you are not licensed in either of those professions?

A: I had no idea I would actually be performing massages and facials; in my discussions with the production company, I told them that unless I was working on employees at those locations, that was not something I would be doing. I was very, very, very surprised when I was asked to work on clients. I had no anticipation of that. And I found out later, on the back end, they got consent and, of course, they didn’t get payment; they had looked into all the laws.

Q: At one point in the show, you said, “Massage Heights has a really sexy business model. That’s why we’ve been so successful.” There has been outcry among massage professionals regarding your use of the word “sexy” in relationship to massage therapy. What can you say about that?

A: I wish that hadn’t come out of my mouth. I had said we are in a time when people are more focused on taking care of their health, with aging baby boomers and increased use of complementary therapies, and I said that our business model is a very attractive one [all of which was edited out of the show]. A producer said, “So, it’s a sexy business model?” And I repeated ,”Yes, it’s a sexy business model.” So that’s how that came about.

Q: Talk about that makeover, with the glasses and the bouffant hairdo. On the show, you called yourself Tracy Reynolds, a Midwestern housewife from Chicago, Illinois. Many massage therapists feel the makeover conveyed the idea that therapists are odd or flaky. Where did the idea for that come from?

A: Unfortunately, you give up all creative control when you sign on for Undercover Boss. They ask you to come up with a storyline you can remember. I lived in Chicago for a number of years, and that was something I can remember. They completely controlled what I wore every single day and how the wig looked and everything. I was not happy with what I had to wear, but I didn’t want to blow my cover.

Q: Do you receive massage therapy?

A: I love massage therapy; that’s the reason I got into the business. I wanted to get them on a regular basis and couldn’t afford to—and that’s actually how [Massage Heights] came about. I get, on average, one a month, but sometimes up to two times a week. I get them at Massage Heights, at resorts, at spas—anywhere I can get a massage, I get one. I love massage therapy.

I think the thing that’s most important that they didn’t show is the respect I have for every single massage therapist—not just at Massage Heights, but in the world. I’ve always been absolutely amazed with what they can do with their hands. That didn’t come across [in the episode], and that’s what’s most disheartening for me.

Q: Prior to appearing on Undercover Boss, had you visited individual Massage Heights locations?

A: From when I started this company in 2004 until 2007, I was in the retreats. That’s all I did. I do it as often as I possibly can, and we have an operations team that does that.

Q: At the end of the show, you announced the creation of the Heights Family Fund. What can you tell us about that?

A: It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a number of years, and frankly couldn’t get it off the ground for a number of reasons—but the show inspired us to be diligent about it.

We are going to allow anyone to contribute to it, but you don’t have to contribute in order to be considered [to receive assistance]. It will be co-funded by anybody, including vendors, employees and corporate. [We will] notify all employees with a collateral piece to owners that goes out with employees’ checks and tells them how they can donate to, and access, the funds.

Because we’re a family organization, I think it’s very important to have that family feeling, not just here at corporate, but [that] permeates throughout the organization. I think that knowing you have something to turn to in a crisis situation is reassuring. We applied for our 301C the very week of the show, and we’re still waiting on that status.

Q: Do you feel like the episode portrayed you and Massage Heights fairly?

A: Not completely, no. I think there are many hours that go into filming about 43 minutes of television, so as you can imagine, there are a lot of things that were said and shown that didn’t make the cut.

Q: What positive things came out of your appearance on Undercover Boss?

A: Getting to know some of the people who work in our business and throughout the country, not just in San Antonio, [Texas], where I live and own [Massage Heights] locations. It was honestly inspirational for me to be able to get out in the field and meet people, learn about them personally, and learn what they love about the brand and what they thought we could improve upon.

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