Massage acceptance, a step backward?

I try to keep politics out of the spa (politics is about the least relaxing topic ever). However, our guests value massage therapy and right now massage therapists are caught in a precarious battle to maintain their professional credibility and guarantee clients safe, convenient access to massage as healthcare.

I’ve been on an amazing tour of European massage therapy clinics, spas, and wellness centers with licensed massage therapy colleagues from Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas this week. It has been fascinating to learn the long history of therapeutic and medical massage and how it is an integral and accepted part of European healthcare.

In stark contrast, I woke up two days ago to some distressing news. A city ordinance proposed in Clive, IA would impose additional regulations on legitimate massage therapy businesses in that city. This is a trend in Central Iowa in response to the alarming number of illigitimate businesses, however there are already laws in place regulating licensed massage therapists AND laws against human trafficking and prostitution.

In my visits to the wellness clinics in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, I’m learning how public visitors can enjoy relaxing massage therapy for stress relief and overall wellness, and patients recovering from surgery, injury, workplace strain, and living with disabilities receive prescribed medical massage alongside physical therapy, exercises, hydrotherapy (soaks in pools and theramal water) and more. These facilities are very accessible and are frequented by senior citizens, families with children, and the population in general.

Meanwhile, back in Central Iowa my colleagues received letters from the police department informing them of proposed restrictions on their business hours (this could especially impact therapists serving shift workers and athletes who like early morning massages before work or in conjunction with gym schedules), additional background checks, fees and more. Seeing the acceptance of massage therapy in Europe compared with our regression in central Iowa was particularly painful.

I agree that human trafficking is a huge problem in the United States and there are an alarming number of illicit human trafficking operations in Central Iowa, but Licensed Massage Therapists are educated, trained healthcare providers that benefit the lives of many of their clients. The State of Iowa licenses massage therapists and has laws regulating the professional, ethical, competent practice of massage. The illicit businesses are easy to spot already, bars on the windows, inappropriate advertisements online, and not following licensing laws. One such business has a handwritten sign instructing cars to park behind the building (out of view of the street, presumably).

I’m hopeful that we can come to a compromise that doesn’t restrict ethical practitioners and the public will continue to receive massage therapy that is convenient, as an effective means of reducing stress and pain. I hope that the municipalities proposing (and passing) additional restrictions on legitimate massage therapy businesses don’t discourage therapists from opening in their areas, making it less convenient for residents to use their services to enhance their quality of life.

If nothing else, I’m thankful to start the conversation. The public needs to be aware of the benefits of massage therapy and learn to speak out against unethical human trafficking operations without damaging the licensed professionals who have the primary goal of making life easier, less stressful, and healthier for the citizens of their communities. I applaud municipalities for making the fight against human trafficking a priority, but please recognize that license massage therapists are heartbroken that these illegal and unethical businesses are masquerading as a profession we love. It adds insult to injury for these legitimate therapists to feel as though they are being punished and lumped in with the people perpetuating these crimes against the victims of human trafficking.

Human trafficking in the spa industry

Following a White House proclamation in 2011, January is recognized annually as Human Trafficking awareness month.  In recent years, organizations like the Polaris Project and government agencies have helped to shed light on how widespread human trafficking and slavery are in America, in big metropolitan areas, affluent suburbs, and quiet rural towns.

The issue of human trafficking is often top of mind for me as a spa owner because facets of this industry have been used as a way to exploit victims of human trafficking and Iowa is not immune.

Fake Massage Businesses

Fake massage businesses masquerade as providing legitimate massage, reflexology, spa, or other health services, but often operate within a network of traffickers.  People I’ve spoken with are shocked to see how openly these businesses are advertised online.  In 2015 alone there were many raids on parlors:

Salt Lake City, Utah

Central Ohio

Houston, Texas

And in West Des Moines, IOWA in 2015, women were found living on bunk beds in a massage parlor that operated long hours 7 days a week including late nights.  Neighboring businesses reported they never saw employees come or go.  After a visit from the fire inspector, the parlor was told they could re-open once they met fire code. A city council member asked police to investigate the business for illegal activity, but police declined.

Licensed Massage Therapists are health care providers who have extensive education in their field.  While some people laugh and tease licensed massage therapists like my colleagues and me about these parlors, it breaks our heart, especially when the people forced to work in places like this may be slaves, even minors.  The reporting and labeling these businesses as “massage” is dangerous to licensed massage therapists like me and puts us at risk for assault or harassment.

It also is unfortunate as it stigmatizes the good work that licensed massage therapists do, making some people less likely to seek services that could truly benefit their health, including pregnant women, cancer survivors, senior citizens, children with disabilities, athletes, and people with high stress levels or injuries.

Nail Salons

In 2015, a series of articles in the New York Times by Sarah Maslin Nir exposed nail salons for human rights violations.  The organization Human Rights First explains more about nail salon labor exploitation.

As a spa owner, I know exactly how much a safe and ethical manicure and pedicure cost.  Quality products that are free from the harsh chemicals common in some high volume salons are expensive (Our cost for a bottle of base coat, top coat and one color of Shellac is $65.85, not to mention all the lotions, scrubs, and disposable tools we give to our clients or toss after a service!)

In order to ensure safety, employees can’t rush through services and need to allow adequate time to clean and sterilize their tools.  The cleaning and tool sanitation time is time they can’t see clients.  If a salon is under pricing services, they will have to make it up in volume which doesn’t always allow for adequate tool or tub cleaning. Nail technicians spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours attending training programs and continuing education so they can provide safe, skilled services.

Basically, my point is that if a nail service is really cheap, something has to give, whether product quality, sanitation (reusing disposable products, not allowing enough time to clean instruments or tubs), or employee compensation.  Often, all three.

Like the fake massage businesses, nail salons are also under investigation.  The New York Times series set off a rush of legislation and investigations in the northeast in 2015 exposing many labor violations.

It isn’t a recent problem for nail salons.  The Huffington Post published an article in 2013 explaining some of the reasons nail salons are easy fronts for human trafficking: Low hour requirements for licensing programs, a predominately cash-based business (easier to launder money), and at least in 2013, they were more under-the-radar than fake massage businesses.

In Virginia, a nail salon is under investigation after human trafficking reports in November

In Connecticut, 23 nail salons were shut down in 2015 for wage and health violations

New Jersey also started cracking down on health and wage violations in nail salons last year.

It is important to note that not all low price or high volume nail salons are engaging in illegal or unethical practices. Nail salons can be an excellent business for people with lower start-up rates and many are operated well by people who are passionate about their career or making an honest living.  However, human trafficking is growing at such an alarming rate nationwide, it is important to know the signs and report any suspicions.   Learn more about the signs at

If you know someone you suspect is a victim of human trafficking, you can also contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline 1-888-373-7888


“Cheap” nail services may come at a high price

I typically try to keep this blog focused on lighter topics, but the issue of human trafficking in the spa and nail industry lately has been bubbling up again on my radar.  Often people think of sham “massage” businesses when they think of human trafficking, but over the years criminals are getting more creative in hiding victims.

We know we are not the “cheapest” place to go for a manicure or pedicure.  We don’t compete on price.  We hire experienced, licensed, and just super nice nail technicians and cosmetologists to provide our services, use high quality products including many we send home with you, and our polishes are widely regarded as some of the best in the industry in their categories.  We love our employees and know if we treat them well, they will treat our clients well.  Providing manicures and pedicures is a great job, one that our employees thoroughly enjoy.  They get to be artistic, nurturing, and spend time getting to know their clients.  Their regular clients are like their family to them!  Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for all people working nail salons in the United States.

We know how expensive it is to provide great nail care (the spa cost of one teeny tiny bottle of CND Shellac is $18.95!), which is why I’m always shocked at the ridiculously low price of some manicure and pedicure services, especially in big cities that have a much higher cost of living.   To compete on price alone, salons have to cut costs elsewhere.  Typically this is done by using lower quality products.  Unfortunately “cheap” salons frequently cut corners on sanitation because they depend on high volume to make rent and proper sanitation takes time (it takes more than 10 minutes to disinfect a whirlpool tub in a pedicure lounge, but rarely would you see that happen in a high volume salon).

The most alarming reason for “cheap” nail services is that costs are being cut with labor.  It might be that employees are not being paid a fair living wage, but sadly,  some nail salons are being used as human trafficking fronts and raids and arrests in other areas of the United States are shedding light on this.  In recent years, nail salons were found operating as a front for human trafficking in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Virginia, and California.  Nails Magazine published one of the best articles on this problem specific to nail salons.    Click here to read it.  Just last month, a popular DC spa came under scrutiny for suspected willful refusal to pay wages and abduction.

Fortunately, the  majority of nail salons are like ours in that they strive to build nurturing relationships with clients to help them look and feel great while providing a supportive work environment.  The unfortunate reality is that unethical and shady business practices are more common in the industry than people realize so consumers need to be vigilant.  The Polaris Project works to educate the public and rescue victims of human trafficking.  These are the warning signs they recommend looking for.

It was never my intent to learn as much about nail salons and nail care as I do (I’m a nursing home activity director turned massage therapist!) but I’m glad I know what to look for and I’m thankful for the opportunity to work with the bright, enthusiastic, and creative women providing the nail services at our spa.  I appreciate them and I know for a fact, they appreciate all of you!

happyCassandra, Camille, and Leah posing for our New Year card!