Massage therapists care about human trafficking, and we want the practice of massage parlors engaging in human trafficking to end.
However, burdening licensed therapists with unnecessary paperwork, fees and inspections will not accomplish this.
A new law in North Carolina provides an example of how lawmakers can overreach in trying to combat human trafficking, and the effects such laws may have on massage therapists.
In July 2017, the North Carolina State House and Senate passed a law, “Strengthen Human Trafficking Laws/Studies” that was signed into law in September 2017 by Gov. Roy Cooper.
In 2017, there were 258 reported cases of human trafficking in North Carolina, according to a report released in January by North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein. A report by The Polaris Project discussed the practice of human trafficking in illicit massage businesses throughout the U.S.
However, this new law targeting massage parlors engaged in human trafficking will burden licensed massage therapists with more paperwork and fees, without addressing the real causes of human trafficking.
In April, upset massage therapists addressed the North Carolina Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy about the law.
“We as massage therapists are concerned that the proposed rules are unrealistic, they’re unattainable, and they’re going to do nothing to stop human trafficking,” massage therapist Linda Zukowski said, as reported by WRAL.com.
“We need to submit a floor plan with detailed information on heating, ventilation and sanitation facilities,” she said. “They’re asking us to provide information on all our equipment and supplies.”
According to Charles P. Wilkins, legal counsel for the North Carolina Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy, who communicated with me via email, “The primary purpose of the establishment licensure law is to identify and regulate legitimate massage and bodywork therapy businesses by providing them with a license from the Board.
“Conversely, a business advertising or offering massage services that is not licensed by the Board will be presumed to not be legitimate and will be more easily identified, investigated and ideally closed by local and state law enforcement,” Wilkins continued.
“Another presumed benefit of establishment licensure will be to provide another tool to current statutes and to law enforcement to combat human trafficking,” he said.
Throughout the U.S., human traffickers use fake massage therapy establishments to cover up their crimes.
Details of the New Law
Massage therapists in North Carolina are already licensed and regulated, and regulating us further does nothing to close the loopholes in state laws that allow human traffickers to continue to operate.
Additionally, there are no laws governing the practice of reflexology, for example, in the state. Because of this, all you need to open a reflexology practice is a business license from the state.
This loophole and others make it easy for traffickers to continue to use various forms of touch as a front for their criminal activities.
The new law, according to NC Capitol Connection:
- Requires licensing of massage and bodywork businesses, making it a Class 1 misdemeanor to employ anyone as a massage practitioner who is not licensed;
- Requires massage and bodywork therapists to obtain a statewide privilege license, and establishes regulation of the businesses that offer massage and bodywork by the Board of Massage Therapy and Bodywork.
- Requires that some establishments display public-awareness signs containing information about the National Human Trafficking Resource hotline.
- Directs the state’s Department of Health and Human Services “to study the feasibility of providing human trafficking training to health care providers, emergency medical providers, and relevant first responders.”
Several proposed rules are included in the bill. Here are some of those proposals and my arguments against them:
Proposed change: Massage businesses must provide copies of reports from city or county inspections for fire, safety, health and sanitation, made within the three months prior to submission of application for approval.
My argument: This is potentially four separate and additional expenses, which should be covered by the building owner.
I spoke with the North Carolina Health and Human Services department about the health, safety and sanitation inspection requirement, which would require the creation of a new law.
They said that the health department does not have any directive or authority to inspect massage businesses and the state board cannot give them such a directive. Meaning, at this time, we do not even have any way to get a health and safety inspection should this proposed rule pass.
Proposed change: “Facility plan, including floor plans with dimensions and fixtures, uses of each room, specifications on lighting, ventilation and temperature control, location of lavatories for hand washing and toilet facilities” will be provided by the massage business.
My argument: While such plans can often be obtained from the landlord, they are rarely accurate or as detailed as they are asking for. And, how does knowing this information contribute to reducing human trafficking?
What studies have been used? What happens if a room changes functions? What happens if lights and lamps (which are rarely the overhead light provided) are moved, changed, altered? What increase in human trafficking will occur if establishments fail to comply?
Additionally, if the building is maintained by its owner for safe commercial use, why does the massage therapist need to provide information? We should be able to obtain or forward copies from the current landlord.
Proposed change: “List of all LMBTs hired as employees or contracted with as independent contractors to provide treatment to clients, or signed letters of intent from LMBTs with a projected start date of work pending the opening of the establishment following granting of a license to operate” will be provided by the massage business.
My argument: Employment situations change frequently, especially in large franchises, and there is no indication about how often that should be updated.
Further, does this information increase the board’s ability to prevent human trafficking? Why not require a background check for hires? How will people not participating be an indication of human trafficking?
Proposed change: “Provide treatment rooms for massage and bodywork therapy that are least 10 feet by 12 feet in size, with a minimum of three linear feet of open floor space around all sides of the massage treatment table.”
My argument: This eliminates many, if not most, current rooms for hundreds of small business owners across the state. A good therapeutic massage can be accomplished in a slightly smaller room. A good relaxation massage can occur in a much smaller room.
Proposed change: “Equipment list, including furniture, office equipment, and equipment used for massage and bodywork therapy treatment” will be provided by the massage business.
My argument: We have no indication of how detailed that list needs to be, how this is different from a property tax listing or how it will be used to prevent human trafficking.
What other industries need to provide this? Are any of those industries comparable to massage? How will knowing what equipment is put on the list establish which locations are engaged in human trafficking?
Proposed change: “A completed self-evaluation inspection report demonstrating compliance with this section” will be provided by the massage business.
My argument: We have no indication on how they will verify this information to prevent fraud by people who already have no problem breaking the law.
This act also requires a $50 “art of healing” privilege license, in addition to our state license of $100 every two years, as well as requiring many licensed therapists to obtain an establishment license at an additional cost of up to $320 plus renewals every two years. (In Boone, for example, the fire inspection fee is $30. This fee will vary by city and county.)
Good Laws are Possible
North Carolina needs to pass laws that will close existing loopholes, because illicit businesses are already changing their signs and websites to advertise reflexology and energy work.
Law enforcement needs the training and resources to enforce existing laws, as well as resources for victims of human trafficking.
In addition, human trafficking, like any other business, is a matter of supply and demand. Harsher punishments for stings targeting sex buyers should be enforced.
The state board of cosmetology licenses salons for around $30, and that includes a state inspector visiting the establishment. I think we could get on board with a reasonable solution such as this coupled with other laws that address this complex problem.
Massage therapists would love to see laws that really make a difference, not ones that burden hardworking licensed therapists with expensive and ineffective regulations meant to address massage parlors engaged in human trafficking.
About the Author
Gael Wood has more than 23 years of experience in the massage and spa industry. She now concentrates on training massage and spa therapists in business, spa services and greater success. She is a regular contributor to MASSAGE Magazine, and her articles include “Multiple Income Streams = More Money with Less Stress” and “Achieve Big Goals with a Five-Year Plan” for the February 2018 print issue. This guest editorial is the opinion of the author.
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