Politics & Government

Local officials struggle with massage business boom as state regulations expire

The sign wasn’t the kind most businesses feel compelled to post.

“We Are Not A House Of Prostitution,” proclaimed the notice that Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, recalled seeing in the window of a Los Feliz massage parlor.

To Gomez, the message illustrated how a perennial concern about massage businesses has intensified over the last few years. Cities and counties have witnessed a boom in massage establishments even as they have ceded some authority to regulate those businesses, heightening the risk of violators selling sex under the guise of massage therapy.

“It’s occurring everywhere,” said Gomez. “We have to take some hard steps to figure out how to protect the rights of the legitimate owners and shut down the illegal ones.”

Lawmakers will soon have an opportunity to change how California regulates massages. A 2008 law replaced local control with a state nonprofit, the California Massage Therapy Council, that certifies massage practitioners, requires background checks and oversees massage schools. The law creating the new framework will expire at the end of 2014.

The massage industry backed the new law, saying it would smooth out a jumble of local rules by establishing universal standards for massages. Law enforcement officials praise a statewide permit system that can track violators even if they move around the state.

“This was a very potent regulation for massage professionals, because instead of us being regulated by a patchwork of local ordinances” there are statewide standards, said Stacey DeGooyer of the American Massage Therapy Association’s California chapter. The former system “was costly for cities and counties,” DeGooyer added, “because each of them to had to reinvent the wheel.”

Now, however, some of those cities and counties are grappling with a proliferation of new massage parlors, and they say the 2008 law has left them ill-equipped to handle the influx. The League of California Cities has taken those complaints to Sacramento, urging lawmakers handling the law’s expiration to restore some local authority.

“We are having an extremely difficult time discerning the legitimate ones from the illegitimate ones,” said Kirstin Kolpitcke, a lobbyist for the league.

Sex acts in the back rooms of massage parlors are nothing new, law enforcement officials point out, and recession-driven cuts to law enforcement operating budgets have hamstrung authorities hoping to shut down violators. But the 2008 law has exacerbated the situation, critics say, by allowing some massage parlors to skirt local rules.

Massage businesses employing exclusively therapists certified by the California Massage Therapy Council are no longer subject to some local ordinances because, according to the 2008 law, cities and counties must regulate massage parlors the same as other businesses. That strikes some critics as absurd.

“Massage businesses have some very specific concerns that other businesses don’t have,” said Kolpitcke. “You don’t have to worry about a locksmith undressing in front of his clients.”

And because the council bestows and revokes permits for individual massage therapists, not the businesses that employ them, law enforcement and municipal leaders struggle to penalize the owners of wayward establishments. It’s a particularly acute problem given that women performing sex acts at massage parlors are often coerced or driven to prostitution by financial need.

“We try to put the onus on the business owners instead of the worker just in case the worker is a victim,” said Katy Tang, a San Francisco supervisor who has been active on the issue.

Numbers are soaring

Behind prosaic neon signs advertising relaxation and stress relief, advocates say, something more sinister can lurk: prostitution or outright human trafficking. Telltale signs of illicit activity at massage parlors can include locked doors or security cameras. The problem is especially pronounced in the Asian community, with masseuses often enticed from abroad with a promise of steady work.

“What we’re finding is the females who do work in those establishments a lot are here legally, but they did get recruited from their home countries to come work in these places,” said Linh Tran of the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force.

While Tran noted that human trafficking in Orange County more often occurs on street corners or in hotel rooms than in massage establishments, she said that “most cities have had an increase in massage parlors since the state took over.”

The timing of those massage parlor surges has paralleled the onset of new state regulations. Fresno, for example, has seen an increase from about 30 storefront massage establishments to more than 200.

“Traditionally any control over the massage industry was up to the local jurisdiction,” but the state law overrides that, said Sergeant Curtis Chastain of the Fresno Police Department . “I don’t know if that had a role in the explosion of massage parlors we saw, but it definitely complicated it.”

Like Fresno, Huntington Beach has seen its massage parlors swiftly multiply, from nine in 2009 to more than 70 at the start of 2014. In Sacramento County, the number has jumped from around 120 to more than 160 since 2008.

“Believe me, there’s not another single business I can name that had a 30-percent increase in five years,” said Guy Fuson, tax and license manager for Sacramento County.

Shuttered parlors quickly reopen

The growth could also reflect broader acceptance of the health benefits of massages, said Ahmos Netanel, chief executive officer of the California Massage Therapy Council and founder of the Massage Therapy Center.

“There’s been a major mainstreaming of therapeutic massage all over the world,” Netanel said. “Wherever you look, the general public’s interest in therapeutic massage, in spas, in integrated wellness is expanding rapidly.”

Statistics bear this out. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that massage therapist employment will grow by a resounding 23 percent over the next decade. Civic leaders worry about that kind of growth proceeding without sufficient local oversight.

Exempting massage establishments from local regulations creates a regulatory blind spot, Tang said. The California Massage Therapy Council does not dispatch inspectors. That responsibility still falls to the city’s police force and public health department, but Tang said San Francisco has been deprived of some key tools.

“We have no power as a city to go enforce any of our rules,” said Tang. “We see this as a huge loophole.”

A growing number of San Francisco massage establishments exist in that loophole. The city now features 62 establishments that operate under the auspices of the California Massage Therapy Council and are shielded from city health department rules, according to a city presentation. Twelve of those were formerly regulated by the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

To the consternation of city officials in San Francisco and elsewhere, massage businesses seem to regenerate quickly. A shuttered establishment can quickly re-open under new ownership, often in the same building.

“In my areas, we have a raid that occurs on a massage parlor, they shut it down but then someone else opens up another one under a new license in maybe a few weeks or so,” said Gomez.

Cities could try to block those establishments from opening in the same building by applying zoning restrictions. But there, too, local officials say they have been thwarted by the state law.

Local governments can apply new zoning and land use rules to massage parlors only if those same rules can apply evenly to other service industry establishments. As a result, officials cannot enact new rules such as limits on the number of massage parlors permitted in a given area. Huntington Beach, for instance, used to cap the total at 10.

“Our zoning and land use laws are how we typically regulate business in cities and counties,” said Kolpitcke. “We don’t have that same thing for massage.”

The members of the California Massage Therapy Council have heard the local grievances, Netanel said, and the organization’s board has endorsed legislation that would affirm local governments have the power to level fines, shut down violators and prevent new parlors from opening in the same place as a previous offender. He stressed that the council prizes public safety.

“We share a common interest with cities. We want to work with cities and we do work actively with cities and law enforcement,” Netanel said, noting that the council offers training exercises for local police and sheriff departments hoping to crack down on human trafficking.

In the meantime, some law enforcement officials are frustrated. Captain Bill Stuart, commander of the Huntington Beach Police Department’s investigations division, recounted sending an undercover detective into one of the massage establishments flourishing “in every strip mall all over the city.”

After the detective successfully exchanged money for a sex act, the masseuse was fired. But in the end, Huntington Beach was unable to shut down the business itself.

“We went to all this trouble and expense to do this undercover investigation and do all these appeals and we still didn’t shut them down,” Stuart said. “It’s just sort of like shooting at a moving target.”