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  • Massage Therapists: Business Owner or Employee?

    By Dawn Lewis

    Many years ago while teaching an ethics course at my massage therapy school the students and I got into an interesting discussion. One woman, we will call her Kay, said that her intention was to obtain a job at a spa in our area (Full Circle was originally a massage school in the mountains of Colorado where there were lots of spas), pass out her own business cards to the clients she worked on, build her private business, and then leave the spa and work for herself. I asked if she thought the owner(s) of the spa would be alright with her passing out her cards at their facility. Her response was, “sure, why not, they must know that given the choice I would chose to work for myself and that I am only there to build my business.” Several other students agreed. One of them, we will call her Dee, said “if the spa did not know that then they were idiots because all employees were just out for themselves, as were all employers.” Dee went on to say, “we’re doing all the work and they’re making half or more of the money, so why shouldn’t we promote ourselves.” Kay fully agreed. I asked if it was ethical. Most of the class thought that it was.

    I asked my students the following questions and received the following answers: Who would provide the tables in the spas they were going to work at. The spas will, they responded. Who will provide the sheets and oil? The spas will. Who will do the marketing to draw the clients in so that you can make a living? The spas will. Will you schedule your own appointments or will there be a receptionist? A receptionist. And who will pay the receptionist? The spa will. (This is when it began to come to most of them that there was a lot more to running a business then they thought.) Once a client comes in, you want them to like the atmosphere of the place so they will return, yes? Yes, of course. And who will pay for all of the things that create that atmosphere? The spa will. Who will pay the rent, utilities, HOA dues, and all other expenses? The spa. If business is slow for a month, who will continue to pay all of these expenses? The spa.

    Many massage therapists prefer to work for someone else. They do not want the responsibility of leasing a space, marketing on their own, having bad months and having to pay expenses anyway, or buying everything needed for a space. Some would love to work for themselves, but simply cannot afford the startup costs. It is important to remember what the business owner(s) is providing and why that works for some people. Even Kay and Dee had to agree that there were a lot more expenses then they had realized. I ran up just a few numbers for what these things would cost and the entire class decided it was not ethical to build your business on someone else’s “back.” Having said that it is also wrong for business owners to use the massage therapists working for them to build their own business. Many of us work as sub- or independent contractors. And many of us are confused by the differences in those two descriptors.

    A subcontractor is defined as a person doing a portion of work within a larger project. While an independent contractor is defined as a person, corporation, or entity that provides goods or services to another within the guidelines of a contract or agreement. One of the major differences in employees, subcontractors and independent contractors is how much control the business owner has over the individual. An employee is told what their hours will be, what jobs they will perform, how to perform those jobs, how to dress, etc. Everything needed for the employees job will be provided by the business owner(s). For this control, the business owner(s) collect employees taxes, contribute to employees taxes, and provide benefits.

    A subcontractor is generally told what their hours will be, what their jobs will be, and how to perform those jobs. What is needed to perform their job will mostly, but not fully, be provided by the business owner(s). They still work for the business owner(s), and in most states, the business owner(s) is responsible for providing workman’s compensation insurance in case of injury to the subcontractor. However, the business owner(s) does not contribute to the subcontractor’s taxes, nor does the employer withhold or pay the subcontractor’s taxes. No benefits or insurance will be provided to the subcontractor. An independent contractor agrees to do a specific job, determines independently how that job will be completed, provides all of what is needed to do the job, decides what hours will work for them and the business owner(s), and provides all of their own insurances. In this case, the business owner(s) only have the control given to them by the agreed upon contract.

    Unfortunately, this leaves the door open to many business owner(s) taking advantage of contract labor. For massage therapists, this means that at times we may be asked to do free chair massage to build the massage business. Many therapists have told me that free chair massage builds the business of the chiropractor, hair salon, acupuncturist, etc. because it is a perk that is not offered everywhere. But since clients are getting massage for free, they do not feel the need to book an actual appointment. There is also the business owner(s) that expects the massage therapist to be at the place of business for 6 to 10 hours a day, in case there is a walk-in, but only pays when a massage is actually given. In my opinion, both of these scenarios are disrespectful to the massage therapist, whether you are called a subcontractor or an independent contractor.

    Another way I would say MT’s need to be respected by business owner(s) is that business owner(s) need to adhere to the schedule given, agreed to, and/or expected by that therapist. Many businesses where massage therapy is offered are more interested in making the money and never turning away a client than they are in the needs of the massage therapists doing the work. One of my TA’s works for a spa in Arizona for about half the year. She will come out of her last appointment of the day, just to be told that they booked her another massage 10 minutes later. She tells them, “no, I have to leave, this is why I set this schedule.” They beg and plead. She is a nice woman and has set a precedent with them by staying most of the time. Remember that if you say yes once, this will continue to happen and you will be asked to stay again and again.

    I have owned my own businesses for over 20 years and I can tell you that until you own a business, you simply do not understand the amount of time and expense it takes to keep it running. As an employee (or contract labor) of that business, you want the business to run successfully because it helps you. In owning businesses, I have also been a manager for over 20 years. It is important as a manager and an business owner to listen to the employees, to pay fairly, and to stick to what you and that employee have agreed upon. I have had nightmare employees, who I have had to fire very quickly, and before owning my own businesses, nightmare employers. Employees, sub-, and independent contractors need good business owners to live and business owners need good employees to succeed. My advice is, no matter which you are, respect yourself and those you work for or those that work for you.