workplace cooperation

Improved working conditions for employed massage therapists is the goal of the Massage Advocacy Project—Working America, a project that aims to improve standards for employed massage therapists through public education, advocacy and collective action.

Long hours, back-to-back clients, no health benefits and pay-per-session lower than one might earn in private practice are topics that, while not applicable to every employed massage therapist, strike a common chord among some people in this field.

Enter Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, the U.S. federation of labor organizations, which represents 3 million working people who do not have union membership at their workplaces. It launched the Massage Advocacy Project in October 2015.


Fair Workplace Certification

The Massage Advocacy Project has been most active so far in Portland, Oregon, where 120 massage therapists have met, participated in an event or volunteered, according to Working America National Organizing Director Veda Shook.

Massage therapists there have launched a Fair Workplace Campaign, one component of which is a certification process by which an employer, such as a spa or massage franchise, can become Fair Workplace Certified.

A recent public awareness campaign, conducted at multiple Portland street fairs, educated the public on the positive health benefits of massage and the industry realities facing massage therapists. As of press time, 700 members of the public had signed a statement supporting massage therapists advocating for fair workplace conditions, Shook said.

Massage therapists from across the U.S. have expressed interest in organizing events in their area, and Chicago massage therapists have begun meeting to discuss organizing activities there, she added.


An Informed Public

Public awareness outreach is a way for therapists to share the healing powers of massage while also educating people about the challenges facing some massage therapists, said Shook. “Clients often think [massage therapists] are making big bucks,” she said. “Most surprising to the public was the irony that [massage therapists] provide health and wellness to our communities, but in most cases do not have access to employer-provided health care themselves.”

Arwyn Daemyir is one of the massage therapists who participated in the Portland public-awareness campaign. She has worked only as a self-employed massage therapist herself, yet said she is affected by low wages paid in the massage industry.

“Most of my massage therapist friends can’t afford to come see me,” she said, and added that the public is starting to expect the price per session set by massage franchises, “a rate that wouldn’t be livable for me.”

Daemyir said she sees her colleagues struggling as employees. “We are speaking about low wages, long hours and unfair workplace practices, and being asked to do work that isn’t paid for,” she said. “Some massage therapists that I have talked to at meetings have talked about how they are only paid for massage hours, but they are being told that part of their job is to also do filing [in the] front office, laundry, cleaning, things of that nature, if they have a time slot that isn’t being filled by massage.”

The best way to ensure fair workplace standards in any industry is for employees to have a collective, unified voice, said Shook.

“When massage therapists are overworked because pay is too low, the quality of care they provide often suffers,” she said. “By raising workplace standards, we improve the lives of massage therapists and increase the quality of care for clients.”

Shook and Daemyir de­clined to mention any franchise or spa by name for this article. Massage and spa franchises contacted for comment on this topic included the nation’s largest massage franchise, Massage Envy, a representative of which told this publication the company decided to decline comment; La Vida Massage, which did not respond to a request for comment; and Massage Heights, whose vice president of marketing, Alice O’Donnell, said, “We’re deeply focused on being an employer of choice, and many of our franchisees offer massage therapists benefits such as paid CEs, [professional] liability insurance and vacations, as well as flexible work schedules, employee memberships and more.”


Positive Workplace Change

Despite its affiliation with the AFL-CIO, the Massage Advocacy Project—Working America is not a union.

“We are engaged in non-union organizing, which to my understanding is a fairly new field,” Daemyir explained.

“We are not trying to create a union, as the industry is not one that would support traditional unionization,” she said. “My understanding is that we are too diverse in terms of how we work, where we work, number of employees and number of independent massage therapists.”

She added that in an industry where therapists often work in isolation, it is important to talk about the issues that matter, decide what priorities exist, “and start making positive changes.”


About the Author

Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief. She wrote “Cultural Competence: Why Getting to the Heart of Biases Matters in Health Care” for MASSAGE Magazine’s February 2016 print issue, and “Massage for Valentine’s Day: The Best Gift Ever” for (Feb. 10, 2016.) She has also edited and written for Imagine Magazine, the Sacramento Bee newspaper and the LIVESTRONG Foundation.