Hands-on regulation

Councilman weighs local, state efforts to regulate massage parlors

Check for yourself:
Go to www.camtc.org and click “verify certification” to search for certified massage practitioners by name or city.

Ever question what types of transactions actually go down in shady-looking massage parlors? Some offer more than massage, says Chico City Councilman Randall Stone. And the workers aren’t always there by choice. In some cases, he says, it’s sex trafficking in plain sight.

“[Businesses] are holding people against their will by taking their identification documents and threatening their families and children,” he said during a recent interview. “They force them into sexual slavery.”

Using laws in Redding and San Francisco as examples, Stone has drafted a city ordinance intended to crack down on parlors complicit in human trafficking. He introduced it during the City Council’s meeting on April 19, and the panel voted 7-0 to send it to the Internal Affairs Committee. It’s currently being reviewed by City Attorney Vince Ewing and likely will come before the council for discussion and possible adoption within the next couple of months.

Stone’s proposed ordinance would require workers in massage parlors to undergo basic background checks and fingerprinting. “At least we’d know if somebody is looking for them in other parts of the country,” he said. There would be a code enforcement element, as well.

“It would be code enforcement officers rather than police—it’s much cheaper to go that route—and they’d make sure the facilities are being used for massage rather than prostitution,” he said.

Chico isn’t the only community deciding how to handle massage parlors. Under a state law that went into effect last year, a tax-exempt private entity with a financial stake in the massage industry has been spreading its influence to numerous local jurisdictions. The California Massage Therapy Council is a little-known group that makes millions of dollars annually by certifying massage professionals around the state.

Created in 2009 by state legislation, the CMTC established what it calls a “voluntary” certification process. While not required, a CMTC certification is recognized anywhere in the state, as opposed to local certification, which might be good only in the town where it’s obtained.

The CMTC is not a state regulatory body or “quasi-governmental body,” Executive Director Ahmos Netanel is careful to point out. But it’s easy to mistake it for one, as state lawmakers created the group and expanded its role.

In January 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Massage Therapy Act, which, among other things, boosted the CMTC’s profile by incentivizing local governments to require its certification.

CMTC’s bottom line hangs in the balance.

The group’s revenues, which come almost entirely from certification fees, dropped in 2015 for the first time in at least four years, according to CMTC financial statements and IRS data. Last year, CMTC recorded $4.4 million in revenue, almost 7 percent less than the previous year. The group is projecting another decline this year, with less than $4 million expected.

Because the Massage Therapy Act doubled the amount of training required to become a certified massage practitioner to 500 hours (an amount already required for certified massage therapists), fewer new applications are coming in. But CMTC may eventually make that money back as more local governments require its certification, making its “voluntary” process less voluntary.

Still, Netanel says his group neither encourages nor discourages local governments to require CMTC certification.

“We are totally neutral about it,” said Netanel, who became executive director in 2010 and has seen his annual salary increase 14 percent between 2012 and 2014, to $302,325. “It is something that happens organically.”

In February, a written report to the CMTC board estimated that at least 151 counties and cities had begun requiring its certification before massage professionals could do business in their jurisdictions. Another 22 jurisdictions were in the process of drafting similar proposals.

Under Stone’s proposed ordinance, Chico wouldn’t require CMTC certification. However, the law is written to mirror CMTC’s certification process, which requires that applicants clear Department of Justice and FBI criminal background checks. The city would issue a massage-establishment permit after an on-site inspection. Only noncompliant businesses would be penalized through citation and possible closure, Stone said—not the workers themselves.

“We’re not trying to arrest the people who are being trafficked,” he said. “They’ve already been victimized.”

Netanel contends that CMTC’s certification process was robust even before lawmakers increased training requirements, and is fond of saying that a CMTC certificate “is the hardest to get and the easiest to lose.”

“Even if they were not convicted of prostitution, we will revoke their certificate,” he said, adding that the CMTC decertifies people even if there’s just a credible suspicion of prostitution. The most common evidentiary reason comes in the form of sworn declarations from law enforcement officers, which, Netanel said, are “something we use extensively.”

Between its inception in August 2009 and April 30 of this year, CMTC issued 6,794 disciplinary actions, Netanel said.

The CMTC permanently revoked a certificate due to a human trafficking violation for the first time last year. Netanel didn’t recall the details of the case or in which county it occurred.

“That’s out of more than 70,000 individual professionals,” he said. “Even if it is rare, we take it very, very seriously and it is a priority for us.”