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.

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