The Exploitation of Massage Therapists

Ever since my last post about Massage Envy being sold to a giant conglomerate, I’ve been sent dozens of links to message boards and discussions about ME, and many of them contain references to other work places and situations as well. The horror stories outweigh the good by about twenty to one.

There are a lot of places where massage therapists are expected to do back to back massages all day…one woman commented that she was not entitled any break at all until she had done a full 8 hours of massage. That’s not a break; that’s time to go home. Others stated that they are expected to take no more than ten minutes in between clients. By the time you change the sheets, wash your hands and use the bathroom, ten minutes is gone. No time to just breathe for a moment.

I’ve always received a lot of complaints from people who are classified as independent contractors but treated as if they are employees…expected to hang around for no pay if they don’t have clients, on the chance that someone might walk in the door wanting a massage. And expected to do laundry, desk duty, work health fair events on behalf of the business, scrub the bathrooms and whatever else the establishment owner comes up with, all without compensation.

Then there’s the compensation itself. Most of the messages about Massage Envy state that their starting pay is $15 an hour plus tips. However, don’t get the idea that they’re the only guilty party. One therapist on my FB page stated that her local hospital was hiring therapists and paying them $12 an hour. A local chiropractor in my town tried to hire away one of my staff members and offered her $9 an hour. After she recovered from a fit of hysterical laughter and informed him she makes $42 an hour, she said he almost had a heart attack from the mere thought of a massage therapist being paid that much. Another woman on a message board stated that an upscale day spa in Atlanta offered her $10 an hour, and was told upfront that she would be expected to do between 30-40 massages per week.  And this is a place where a 50-minute massage is $90! I just heard from a therapist yesterday who does massage in a chiropractic office. Although she was offered $25 an hour, she is expected to wait until the insurance money arrives in order to get paid. Since I file a lot of insurance myself, I can vouch for the fact that sometimes takes 6-8 weeks. She’s been there for a month and hasn’t seen one red cent yet. And is expected to be on the premises all day (at no pay) whether she has clients or not.

There has been a lot of hoopla in the past couple of years about the human trafficking issue. While I agree that it’s an ugly issue and applaud anyone who is working to stop it, it is really a very small faction of this that has any relation to massage therapy whatsoever. Human exploitation is never right—but it’s going on industry-wide, right here, right now—in the form of employers taking advantage of massage therapists.

I believe it’s a good thing to get some experience under your belt before striking out to open your own business, and there’s no doubt that $15 an hour beats the pay at McDonald’s. However, a few years of doing massage back to back day after day will usually ensure that you don’t last long enough for that experience to be of much value. It’s a path to burnout and career-ending injury.

There are many of us out there who would like to be thought of as part of the medical team, but when I look at the real facts, I don’t see us getting there anytime soon, or possibly, never. As a colleague of mine pointed out recently, if we ever do get there, we’re still going to be the low man on the totem pole. We’ll never rise above anyone that’s already there, in stature or in pay. After all, in the general scheme of things, isn’t it more important for a patient to have a clean bedpan than it is to have a massage? If I were the one needing to use the bedpan, I’d say yes. So even though I’d like to see massage embraced as medical care, when it comes right down to it, I’m not going to bet the farm on it. Our massage therapy organizations promote it, when what I’d really like to see is them promoting higher pay and better working conditions for massage therapists. Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of them to speak out against Massage Envy or any other employer. Spas, chiropractors, resorts and others will continue to get by with paying massage therapists a pittance. They bank on the fact that a lot of people need a job, any job, and they will do anything to have it, including putting up with being overworked and underpaid.

Self-employment is the way to be in charge of your own destiny, but it’s also a sad fact that many schools don’t prepare students for the real world, or the skills to manage their own business. They make the wild claim that you’ll be making $75 an hour the minute you get out of school, which is totally unrealistic. And it doesn’t help that some state boards, including my own in North Carolina, restrict business and marketing education for CE classes! That’s incredible. My state only requires 15 hours of business for entry level therapists, and then only allows 3 hours of your total 24 hours of required CE to be business. That’s not even enough time to write an intelligent business plan and budget, much less learning the real ins and outs of business.

What has to happen in order for this to get better? Like anything else, a concerted effort. Individual massage therapists, and our organizations, have to be the change. We have to create the change. We have to work for the change. Exploitation in our field continues because we allow it….as long as we continue to take $12 or $15 an hour jobs, the market will continue to be there for them. If we don’t look after our own interests, who is going to? Maybe we should consider paying dues to a labor union instead of a membership organization. Just a thought.

73 thoughts on “The Exploitation of Massage Therapists

  1. Sid_of_Id

    @Haptic I worked on a flight-deck for 6 years before going to school to become an Economist, both of which have given me the resources to be a successful MT. I’d bet my ship-board work was significantly tougher than yours and I was paid significantly less. Either way, both of our stories are anecdotal and neither are typical of the average MT. Unique histories for MT will become more and more uncommon as the industry is franchised.

    Sorry, but I can assure you that the definition of being a capitalist is not selling one’s labor. Owning capital makes you a capitalist. An MT’s table is capital, their labor is not. A cruise ship is capital, salesmanship is not. I hate repeating myself, but since you didn’t seem to get it the first time–Firms like ME, that can purchase capital and services at a much larger discount, as I stated above (ie. storefronts, tables, advertising, truckloads of oil, etc.) they can then undersell independent MT’s and smaller firms; which in turn forces these firms to reduce quality of service and pay to try to compete. Though firms like ME should (ethically, IMHO) be re-investing some of the added income into their employees pay, but with the “bottom line” attitude, then larger profits are, as always, a bigger consideration than the worker. Spare us the garbage about how the bottom line necessitates exploiting workers just to stay in business. MT didn’t really have this phenomenon until the past few years with the entry of these larger firms. Corporate middle-managing sycophants and apologists like yourself are the problem. Hey, I get it, they treated you like their little punk for years, and you “yes-manned” your way into the big-house. The fact that you mistakenly consider yourself a capitalist is pretty telling, your overt lack of respect for MT as anything but gradable manual labor tells more.

    Well, I have to say, it’s guys like you that reinvigorate my determination to help my fellow MT make a fair living while keeping their dignity. In other words, the opposite of what you do.

  2. Haptic Bodywork

    Ok first I want to apologize for the thread jack. And, this is the last I’ll say to clarify my stance. When anyone, as a therapist, goes to work for someone else they are essentially being given a business (ME or otherwise). Everything that you would need to do it on your own is provided for you. Those things don’t just materialize out of thin air. They cost money. Therapists seem to think that ME is abusive or takes advantage of them. ME probably thinks that they should be happy to have a job. I agree with both but I lean toward ME/Steiner’s position. Showing up, punching in, doing massage, and punching out is easy. The hard part is everything else.

    When companies pay a split or flat rate, you get to keep your portion and go home. Do you really believe that ME’s portion goes straight to the pockets of the owners? No, it goes toward buying all the things that a lot of therapists have no appreciation for. Such as, all the necessary items for them to run a successful business. When, after the bills are paid there is money left over, they keep it. Fair play as far as I’m concerned.

    When you were a kid you complained that Mom and Dad never gave you enough money for allowance (I don’t need to hear, “Not me my parents were blah blah blah, I don’t care I’m making a point). You didn’t have appreciation for power, water, rent, etc. When you got out on your own you got a deeper appreciation for what was given to you and how hard it is to provide. <— Metaphor

    As far as the Phillies go. don't even get me started. The exchange rate is 50 to 1. $5 to you $250 to her. Don't even try to argue this point with me as I've had more than a little experience with this. I saw first hand on ships that story. I'd go home at the end of a contract and still have debt. They would go home and buy a house. And makes for a perfect example when I think about it.

    I earned 7.25% per massage my first contract. So yes if massage cost $100 I was paid $7.25 as was everyone. So, follow me…

    $7.25 = $7.25 for me (American)
    $7.25 = $362.50 for her (Filipino)
    $7.25 = $108.75 (South African)

    Who is being abused here? No one. Why? Because what I finally came to realize was that I was being provided for and learned to have a deeper appreciation for it. <— point.

    I certainly wouldn't take advantage of or abuse my employees. But, I don't loose sight of the fact that life is not fair and what IS fair is subjective, open to interpretation, and very different for everyone.

  3. Haptic Bodywork

    @Sid You forgot ugly, lazy, and disrespectful. 3 things. 1. “…which in turn forces these firms to reduce quality of service and pay to try to compete.” I was going to say this is the key point on which we disagree. But, since you want to start with petty name calling, I’m just going to say you’re wrong. The quality of service is directly related to the therapist involved. If you are a therapist, and you give a crap massage because you don’t like how you’re being paid or how you’re being treated, then you are a crap therapist. If you don’t like your job, go work somewhere else. 2. I never said anything about “exploiting” workers to hit the bottom line. I said I don’t feel as though anyone is being exploited. 3. It’s nose-in-the-air, reactionary, hypocrites like yourself -see what I did there?- that are the problem. You accuse me of reducing massage to gradable manual labor, and yet based on your posts you’d be the FIRST person to line MTs up and pay them based on their experience/grades.

    Your ad-hominem attack is pretty telling to me. Your argument is weak and you know it so you’re reduced to name calling. You don’t know the first thing about me or how I got to where I did with Steiner. Stop being a child and stay on point. The topic is whether or not therapists at ME are being exploited. I don’t think they are for all the reasons stated above. I pay my therapists $25 flat rate for freestyle/deep tissue. 4 per day with a half hour break between. What is abusive about $100 + tips for 5 1/2 hours work or 8 hours for that matter? If you’re so pissed off about low wages and employee abuse/exploitation then A) Dont work for ME and B) go beat the drum for waiters and waitresses. Most of them only make about $2 per hour because they make tips and some places don’t pay an hourly wage BECAUSE they make tips.

  4. Haptic Bodywork

    Oh I almost forgot. “Capitalism is an economic system that is based on private ownership of the means of production and the creation of goods or services for profit.”

    Tormey, Simon. Anti-Capitalism. One World Publications, 2004. p. 10

  5. Gordon Wallis

    Haptic…If you were an employee…and it costs a client $100 an hour to get a massage where you work..Whats fare wages for you? $9, $12, $15 ? Just curious… ?

  6. Haptic Bodywork

    @Gordon good question. Fair to me is a livable wage. I would try not to think, “Ok, they charge (x) so then I should be entitled to (y). There are a lot of variables involved. If they are providing everything for me, meaning that if all I have to do is show up and do massage, I may be willing to do it for slightly less $ than I would like. If I have to do more work, I may ask for slightly more than they’re offering. I know we’re just playing ‘what if’ but it’s difficult to answer. If you’re looking for a number just based on what you’ve given me IDK… $30? I could do 3 massages per day and make $90 +tips. If I went b2b2b that’s 15 hours work per 5 day week for $450 +tips. If you only get $5 tip per person that’s an extra $75 or $525 per week for 15 hours. I think that’s fair.

    I thought long and hard about how I wanted to pay my therapists. in the end I decided that if I pay a flat rate then I can adjust the price point without fear of cutting in to anyone’s pay. If it’s slow I can offer discounts without affecting anyone’s income (other than mine). If you owned a business, If you maxed out your credit cards and borrowed $25k to open your own business and were struggling to make ends meet and busting your ass 16 hours a day to get people through the door only to give those people to a MT who has little or no appreciation for all of the hard work it took to get to the point where you have a place that you can invite people to come to… How much would you pay a therapist if some of your prices were as low as $45 an hour?

    It’s really easy to say “This isn’t fair to me” all I’m saying is the fairness door swings both ways. The business wants whats fair for them to remain in business and grow. Just like Dad got the big piece of Chicken because he was paying all the bills, the business should get the big piece of revenue for the same reason.

  7. Gregory

    I have to admit I work at M.E. BUT I really have no idea how you guys have made these funny ideas of how terrible this company is. I work 24 hours a week make on average 35-45 dollars an hour. I never dont have a client. I dont understand what people are complaining about. If you are a well educated LMT that has the ability to rebook you dont have an issue. Plus insurance, perks, and free massages AND I have time to do an extra 5 massages on my own time a week. 40,000 a year and I work 4 days a week! I mean really come on? I went to school for a year and I have friends who have masters working at Starbucks. Let alone all the good M.E. does as a company regarding this field I think some people need to get educated. 15 bucks an hour starting wage? Not at my M.E.! My only dislike is I had to buy my insurance and big whoop..150 bucks to make what I make in a year. Cool by me! It is what is for some folks but im doing just fine!

  8. Barb

    I agree with Gregory on this non-issue. Massage Envy has created jobs for Massage Therapists who don’t wish to go off on their own. Personally, I take 2 clients back-to-back with a 1/2 hour break every two hours. I’m not treated like a slave, not given peanuts for pay and certainly not pan-handling for lack of income. Sure, there are times I’ve fantasized about having my own little business – but there are risks involved and let’s face it, It’s certainly convenient to come in on a full schedule on their marketing. After hearing the story of the predator who was targeting female Therapists, I feel even more secure in my decision to stay put.
    People are so stuck in this $15/hour bit, but the truth is – they have no clue. The bonuses for return clients and added treatments bring the hourly wage up considerably, as well as normal wage increases. People don’t just STAY at $15/hour forever. Not only that, but it IS a gratuity-based business.
    Another point, I have several clients who work in the healthcare field and have patients back to back ALL DAY LONG. We are talking about ultrasound technicians, Dental Hygienists, Nurses, etc. Is there job any less important that they don’t deserve breaks? They have charts to fill out also. Considering I get a break every 2 hours, I view that as pretty fortunate in comparison.

  9. Gabriele

    The majority of Franchised Massage Therapists and others are exploited and taken advantage of period. Especially young excited rookies just fresh out of school not knowing any better yet needing to make a living. To the experienced it’s just plain insulting. Our hands and body is our tool and the wear and tear becomes a reality sooner than later. Massage therapy is different from a typical job. We have to be available mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually nonstop. We nurture and work intensely and stay focused one hour at a time until the doors close. I don’t think that fact is being considered, respected nor appreciated by franchises, chiropractors or other employers. The other is the drain we take from exhausted and stressed clients. The service we provide is hard work. Many of us are nationally certified, pay out of our own pocket for continued education and health insurance. At the end of the day we pretty much work for nothing. Thinking of it, we actually need to find another job to afford the one we have especially since 45 CEU’s have been upgraded to 750 CEU’s to maintain certification.
    Employers provide the space, marketing but all the other business owner related stress is neither on the massage therapist nor the therapist’s responsibility. Liability insurance, oil and sheets provided by the massage therapist leave the employer with just about zero overhead in the massage department. The employer making 85 bucks vs. the therapist’s 15 bucks is not a fair trait. One thing I absolutely find outrages and invasive is when employers rationalize and consider the tips we earn as a compensation to their payment plan. Our tips are personal and I resent the audacity.

  10. PhilR

    Not even in school yet but loved the read. Being a current business owner, I know, firsthand the hardships involved with building and running same. I can also tell the one’s here making the money. Never, ever, enter anything other than hobby simply because you love it or feel lead to. If you do not get paid you do not eat. This was a stellar blog article.

  11. Martha

    I guess it depends on what state you live in as far as the ME wages. I’ve never known any ME to have a starting wage higher than $15 an hour. Also, the therapists I met who had been there 5 or more years were only making maybe $20. Raises became based on the percentage of new clients who signed up after they had been to you. It didn’t matter if they were visiting from somewhere that didn’t have a ME either. All that was figured into your percentage. It’s like a gym membership too. I saw people signing up for something they didn’t even realize what they were doing. Or they sign up and then don’t use their massages. It has the reputation of being factory line massage which kind of cheapens the industry even though there are a lot of really great therapists who work there. But, at least people are getting more exposed to massage and we can only hope that in the future they will look for a therapist to establish a relationship with because they really value it as part of their health.

  12. Amaury cork

    I am just reading this post and I am amazed about the wages people are getting for doing massage for place like ME. I lived in many countries and I work as a massage therapist. I am self employed and I now live in Norway. I got employed once by a spa in Norway just after arriving here and I was getting the equivalent of $25 per hour. I also got employed in Australia by a chiropractor and I was getting the equivalent of $17 a hour but same, if there was no work, I was still getting paid. if I was paid even if I didn’t do a massage. When I was living In Hungary, people would get paid as much as in the US ($10) when they were working in some hotels but life is much cheaper there than in the US. It is crazy that people can be paid so little for such work. In fact, I think it is a shame, especially seen how much ME charges for massages.

  13. Gabriele

    Since the beginning of my massage career I receive 60% plus tips for every massage service. I am charged a small service fee for oil and sheets. The spa I work at has the decency and respect to compensate massage therapists for the services they provide to their spa guests. I started out with decent pay. Getting used to big money grabbing corporations and other massage therapist exploiting businesses is just not happening. I say down with the sweat shop mentality corporations. And to the ones who do 5 plus massages per day I say your hands and body eventually will not take it anymore. And remember, we don’t work we don’t get paid. What job is waiting for us when we can’t do it anymore? I’m back in school working on plan B. The economy is on a low…

  14. AJ

    Hi Laura, the massage law in Arizona has been so challenging that It’s been hard to obtain a license here, even with the MBLEX and 600 hours from aproved school? where can I complain?

  15. Robin Doerr

    If our associations want to do something productive for the thousands of dollars that they take from massage therapists every year, they can first STOP the closed door meetings, FIRE the good for nothing association managers who have sold this industry down the river by trying legislate this CRAP state by state, by taking ads and sponsorships from corporations like ME, knowing that they don’t pay a livable wage and never will. The main focus of these groups is who will get the $15,000 – $17,000 per year student paycheck, shorten that curriculum to the bare bones to keep supplying corporate massage and the chiropractic profession with cheap labor as fast as possible, while maximizing profits for corporate massage schools. Most massage employees are hired part time with no hope of benefits while they must pay for their own educational costs, licensing costs and other fees, buying into the idea that you can still make a decent wage at this trade. I was paid $12 hour – 10 years ago in the spa business. Why have our wages not improved? Why can’t we all bill insurance in EVERY state? Our “leaders” have colluded in this and helped create this situation. Now these same few wanna dictate costs for those in the industry to stay in business? It’s the height of arrogance. And also the reason why many talented people are leaving the associations and the industry for healthcare jobs that ACTUALLY PAY. I started when it cost $ 9,000 or so to get in and you still made 60% of the service cost (25- 35Hour) . We had more respect when there were less regulations and way fewer expenses. We still have to fight the front line battles against trafficking and wages all by ourselves. It’s really time that we start to question whether all these associations have any other purpose than to buy themselves a high paying job with fancy offices and perks at our collective expense. How about a REAL massage therapist organization run by therapists with some accountability to therapists? That would be a great start.

  16. Justin

    Be your own boss. Start out at a crap place like ME and turn your studio or 1 bedroom place etc. into a massage business. I turned my basement into a massage room and I sometimes charge people 100 an hour.. Just do everything legal and look into ways to advertise. Doing outcalls is also huge if you advertise flyers around hotel/resort areas. The internet will get you clients also. Obviously word of mouth is key but that will come later down the road. I personally told ME ‘nah im good’ and run the show.

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  18. Cyn

    I am not sure I will. Get a response.
    But I have a question :
    The owner of the massage establishment I work for says that he will not pay for he’s massage or any of he’s or he’s wife massages.

  19. Helen Cassidy

    Dear Laura,

    I agree. While our boards are occupying themselves with making brochures against human trafficking, which is beyond the scope of their duties, our profession is going down the toilet. If we don’t begin to stand up against the deterioration of wages and set realistic occupational standards for our profession, a very important healing art for our communities will be lost. Massage is not done 30-40 hours a week with out injury to the therapist!
    I made $90. an hour, before tip, for an outcall in 4 star hotel in 2001. Now the same hotels pay less than a third of that amount. It used to be that savvy clients requested the most talented therapist. Now massage is becoming a fast food mill where fatigued therapist just lean on clients to get through the day. Burnout is inevitable in a couple of years or less. Consumers need to be educated about what real bodywork used to be.

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