Massage Therapists Wrestle With New Rules Requiring Background Checks, Fingerprinting

Some South Florida massage therapists are dealing with a headache that no back rub will fix.

That's thanks to a new state law mandating that, by January 31, all licensed massage therapists in Florida submit to a criminal background check if they want to continue practicing. The law was designed to catch human traffickers, lawmakers say, but some local practitioners believe it's more about extorting cash from them.

"I personally think it's a rip-off," says Nelson Sands, a therapist at Midtown Miami Massage who has been practicing for decades. Sands says the mandatory fingerprinting costs $80 to $120 plus a couple of hours out of his schedule.

Costs aside, the law is about ending the disturbing ruse of massage parlors used to traffic sex workers into Florida, says state Rep. Dave Kerner. The Lake Worth Democrat sponsored the new law last year after reading troubling stories about crooked massage companies, he says.

"We've seen situations, particularly in the Tampa area, where there were some licensed massage therapists with convictions," he says. "The idea is to ferret them out."

The law came amid a number of other scandals in the profession in South Florida, including a 53-year-old therapist accused of molesting three women during massage sessions at a Coconut Grove spa. (A jury acquitted the therapist on charges of sexual battery.)

Under the new regulation Kerner sponsored, the state will "issue an emergency order" suspending the license of any massage therapist who was convicted or pleaded guilty to a number of felonies, including those related to sexual battery, kidnapping, and lewd and lascivious behavior.

Some local therapists are embracing the change. Bob Allen, a therapist at South Beach Massage & Bodywork on Lincoln Road, says the law will help legitimate practitioners by booting frauds out of the business. "I think it's a great idea," he says. "There are a lot of people practicing who have records, a lot of people practicing who don't have licenses... If you have nothing to hide, there's no reason you shouldn't have it done."

Others like Sands are in favor of cracking down on potentially dangerous therapists but are skeptical that the new requirements will be effective. With all of the information the state's massage licensing board already compiles on massage therapists, he says, it should be easy enough to run criminal background checks without forcing thousands of people to pay for fingerprinting.

The state's real reason for implementing the new law? "For money," he says.

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