Cities Feel Powerless While Illicit Massage Parlor Activity Flourishes Under State Law

In three years, Huntington Beach has seen a 600% increase in the number of massage establishments within city limits. Fresno has around 200 licensed massage outfits alone. Upward of 55 licensed massage businesses exist within the City of San Gabriel’s incorporated four square miles—27 of these establishments are located on the same street.

While many massage therapists in California operate within the boundaries of the law, city officials across the Golden State are struggling to regulate massage businesses that serve as fronts for prostitution and human trafficking. Some are blaming a six year old law that has resulted in the proliferation of establishments involved with illicit sexual activity.

SB 731 was authored by State Senator Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach) and signed into law in 2008. The legislation created a voluntary certification process for individual massage therapists regulated by the California Massage Therapy Council (CAMTC), a nonprofit public benefit corporation.

The bill was originally intended to professionalize the massage industry, create universal standards and ensure that massage therapists were treated the same as other professional service providers.

“The field of massage is regulated by a patchwork of local, city and county regulations and requirements,” Oropeza remarked in a 2008 statement. “Many individuals who wish to practice massage and travel from one city to another must meet multiple licensing requirements. There is no statewide regulatory framework, no insurance or bonding requirements and no real protection for the clients against injury. This legislation would fix those problems.”

Prior to SB 731, cities and counties across the state regulated massage establishments through zoning and local code.

The statute allows local government agencies to regulate massage businesses with employees not certified by the CAMTC. However, SB 731 prevents local governments from regulating CAMTC-certified massage establishments—unless regulations apply to other professional services equally across the board.

Kirstin Kolpitcke, legislative representative for the California League of Cities, takes issue with the bill’s requirement that local leaders may regulate certified massage therapists only if city ordinances apply uniformly to all professional industries.

“Cities and counties don’t uniformly regulate anything,” remarked Kolpitcke. “Further, you don’t get dressed in front of tax attorney, locksmith, hairdresser or CPA.”

The CAMTC board is largely made up of massage association members, representatives from massage schools or owners of massage establishments themselves. The board also includes one member appointed by the League (currently Police Chief Arthur Miller from South Pasadena), one appointed by the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) and one by the Department of Consumer Affairs.

“The majority of which are either people who own a massage establishment or who represent an association of a massage organization,” says Kolpitcke. Despite the representation from local government advocacy groups, Kolpitcke believes the fact that the board is almost entirely comprised of massage industry representatives amounts to “a non-profit that is regulating its self.”

According to Kolpitcke’s summary of the law in Western City:

“Other provisions require local governments to charge the lowest business license fee of any professional service to massage establishments and prohibit local governments from requiring restrooms, showers or other facilities not uniformly required of other professional services. Local jurisdictions are also prohibited from requiring unlocked doors when no staff is available.”

CAMTC is responsible for the certification of massage professionals, but it does not retain the authority to regulate the establishments themselves. Efforts launched by police departments across the state to combat illegal activity have been met with resistance and legal loopholes, in part thanks to SB 731.

For all its flaws, SB 731 was established as a pilot program. As such, the law is up for review as it is set to expire on January 1, 2015. The League of California Cities is recommending a three-prong approach in amending this law for the benefit of local officials:

  1. Establish a state agency to take over the certification process previously relegated to the nonprofit board
  2. Ensure that massage establishment owners have a stake in the game by requiring them to register with either CAMTC or the local government agency
  3. Provide local agencies with the necessary tools to regulate illicit massage establishments—including the ability to regulate massage businesses independently of other professional industries

The League has garnered support among state leaders.

Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez believes the program permitting the massage industry to police itself has failed and should be allowed to sunset next year as scheduled.

“There is an overwhelming need to figure out how to control the over-proliferation of illicit massage parlors through the entire state of California,” Gomez stated in a remark to Capital Public Radio.

According to Capital Public Radio, “the Massage Therapy Council says it would like to see the current program retained, but with better coordination with local agencies.”

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