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NEWSDAY: Shortage of massage therapists boosts pay, delays bookings
By Tory N. Parrish tory.parrish@newsday.com

Alan Bernstein’s massage business could be a lot busier, but at least he’s still operating, he said.

The owner of a Hand & Stone Massage and Facial Spa franchise in Hewlett, Bernstein has found that customer demand for massage services exceeds his staff’s availability, due in part to a nationwide shortage of massage therapists that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“On the days where I could really kill it, I don’t have enough staffing,” said Bernstein, who opened the massage franchise in 2015.

As the pandemic led to months of business shutdowns in 2020, some massage therapists left the business altogether because of the lack of work or because of their own health concerns, industry experts said.

Shrinking ranks

Number of licensed massage therapists in New York state

2017: 15,828

2019: 15,741

2021: 14,819

2023: 13,920

Source: New York State Education Department’s Office of the Professions

Others chose to leave their employment at massage businesses to become independent massage therapists who work from their homes or travel to their clients’ homes, increasing their earning capacity and flexibility in scheduling.

Also, apps such as Soothe and Zeel that offer on-demand service, like Uber for massages, are helping more massage therapists operate independently.

Supply and demand issues have created employers’ bidding wars, leading to higher pay, for massage therapists who choose to be employees.  Massage prices are being raised, too.

More employers are offering incentives, such as massage school tuition reimbursement and signing bonuses, to therapists who sign on.

“I have businesses calling me in tears crying because they can’t employ enough therapists,” said Desirae Carosi, president of the New York State Council of Massage Therapy Educators.

Booked through July

Many massage businesses are backed up with bookings, particularly franchise chains such as Massage Envy and Hand and Stone, with some filling up their appointment slots weeks or months in advance because of staffing issues.

As of Friday last week, a Hand and Stone in Huntington was booked until the end of July and there is a daily waiting list of 15 to 20 people, said Lauren Deletto, manager.

“We are doing the very best we can. … We’re blessed enough to have great business.   It prevents newer business, if you will,” she said.

More people focusing on self-care during the pandemic is contributing to strong demand for massage services, she said.

Canney Shao Yang, who  owns CY Massage Therapy P.C. in Mineola and works alone, has so much demand from medical message clients that she sends some of the overflow to a Queens business with which she contracts.  She has been unsuccessful in trying to hire massage therapists, she said.

“I know how to run a business but it’s very hard to hire someone … I work for everything.  I do the billing.  I do the cleaning,” said Yang, who said she earns more than $200,000 annually working alone.

Since 2019, the number of licensed and unlicensed massage therapists has fallen about 3% nationwide — from 360,823 to 351,419 — and most of them are sole practitioners, according to the American Massage Therapy Association, an Evanston, Illinois-based trade group with more than 100,000 members.  Those numbers include California, Minnesota, Kansas and Wyoming, which don’t require massage therapists to be licensed.

Steep decline in numbers

But the decline in the number of massage therapists has been steeper in New York state.

The number of licensed massage therapists in New York state fell from 15,471 to 13,920, a 10% decline,  between April 2019 and April 2023, according to the New York State Education Department’s Office of the Professions.

But the number of working massage therapists in the state is actually lower because many have left the field but their licenses are still active – licenses must be renewed every three years to remain active, said James Shinol, a massage therapist and acupuncturist who owns Think Acupuncture and Massage Therapy in Huntington Station and Ronkonkoma.

In 2022, the Office of the Professions issued 340 massage therapy licenses statewide, a 46% decline from the 633 issued in 2019.

Another issue affecting the numbers is that some massage schools have closed over the past several years due to low enrollment.  The state Education Department’s website lists 14 locations for licensed schools offering massage therapy training in the state.

Alan Bernstein, owner of a Hand & Stone Massage and Facial Spa franchise in Hewlett, says he doesn’t have enough massage therapists to handle demand.

The state should be doing more to assist the massage industry, Bernstein said.

“New York’s requirements are harder.  They make it also impossible to bring in people from other areas [to work].  They’re not helping us in terms of availability of schools,” he said.

Not just for relaxation

Massage therapy is a misunderstood industry that many in the general public don’t know is regulated as a medical profession, at least in New York state, said Kristina Hinckson, president of the New York State Society of Medical Massage Therapists.

All massage therapists receive the same license in New York state but there is a difference between a massage for relaxation, which is a wellness treatment, and a medical massage, which focuses on ailments, she said.

“We are licensed health care professionals and that’s what the rest of the industry, at least in New York State, needs to get. … We’re called in to work with cancer patients.  We work with burn victims… veterans, PTSD, pregnancy,” she said.  “It’s an endless list.”

Most states require 600 to 625 hours of training to become a licensed massage therapist but New York state and Nebraska require the most training, 1,000 hours, said Jed Heneberry, senior director of marketing and business development for the Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals, a Golden, Colorado-based trade group with 85,000 members.

Of the group’s 85,000 members, 60% are independent massage therapists, 20% are employees and the rest are contract workers or a hybrid of different worker categories, he said.

The annual mean wage for massage therapists working for employers in New York state was $67,640 in May 2022, the newest data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  But that does not include independent workers, who can earn much more.

“A massage therapist [working independently] in downstate, many are making six figures and not working six days a week,” Hinckson said.

The biggest reason for the shift in the number of working massage therapists has been the pandemic accelerating the career decisions that many professionals had been contemplating before the health crisis, Heneberry said.

‘Six-figure profitable’

Copiague resident Darcel Colón was already working as a hairdresser when she graduated from massage school and got licensed in 2016.  She wasn’t dedicating much time to the massage business she opened in partnership with an acupuncturist in Deer Park in 2018, but that changed with some major life upheavals, she said.

After being hospitalized with COVID in 2020, the death of her mother in 2021 and going through a divorce in August 2022, Colón decided she wanted to go in a different direction professionally, she said.

“I didn’t want to do hair.  I didn’t want to return back to work,” said Colón, 45, a mother of two adult children.

In April, she began doing massages two days a week at her business, Soul Purpose Wellness, in the Deer Park office she shares with a freelance massage therapist she hired in 2020.  Between that work and doing house calls and working in a small office in Amityville, Colón is earning much more money than she did as a hairdresser, she said.

“It’s six-figure profitable,” she said.

“The work is, to me, less taxing on my body,” said Colón, who said that most of her work is medical massage for injured clients whose services are paid for through the New York State Health Insurance Program for public employees.

Shinol, who has a doctorate in acupuncture and Chinese medicine, has been a licensed massage therapist since 2012.  His business, Think Acupuncture and Massage Therapy, specializes in 25-minute medical massages, he said.

Shinol employs seven people, five of whom are massage therapists, and has only lost one worker since 2020, because of her COVID concerns.  But he was able to replace her, he said.

His business hasn’t had a lot of turnover in staff, he said.

“Honestly, I feel like I really respect my employees and take care of them, not only financially, but if they have a family emergency or if they have anything, I’m very understanding.  I just respect and take care of quality employees,” he said.

At the Hand and Stone in Hewlett, Bernstein this year was able to hire two massage therapists who left local Massage Envy franchises whose ownership changed, he said.

“We treat our staff very well.  I don’t micromanage them.  I treat them as professionals.  My  attrition rate is not bad,” said Bernstein, who employs 12 massage therapists, five aestheticians and one person who does both.

Business is steady, but he doesn’t have enough staffers willing to work evenings and weekends, he said.

“Saturday would be my busiest day if I had my staffing,” he said.

In addition to offering more scheduling flexibility to retain employees, he raised their pay 15% to 20% but that necessitated raising service prices by $10, including new monthly memberships that increased from $69.95 to $79.95 in September 2021, Bernstein said.

Hand and Stone franchises are also rolling out more skincare services provided by aestheticians to offset the limits on massage services, he said.

Where the therapists are

These five counties in New York state have the most licensed massage therapists, based on their county of residence as of Jan. 1.  Therapists might not be working in their counties of residence.

Suffolk: 1,291

Queens: 1,150

New York (Manhattan): 996

Kings (Brooklyn): 938

Nassau: 831

Source: New York State Education Department’s Office of the Professions

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