NC massage therapists pack public hearing to blast human trafficking rules

RALEIGH, NC (WTVD) -- Massage therapy in North Carolina is under the microscope in Raleigh as the state tries to crack down on sex traffickers posing as legitimate massage therapy businesses.

But legitimate business owners say the rules will have the opposite effect and shut them down.

Thursday, those legitimate massage therapists got their one and only chance to sound off to state regulators before the new rules get final approval.

So many business owners showed up, the meeting had to be moved to a larger space on the top floor of the Wells Fargo building in downtown Raleigh.

They came by the dozens, massage therapists from across the state, volleying their contentious concerns and questions at the state's Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy.

"The public needs to be outraged," said Laura Ford, owner of Hands on Health in Cary, who has been one of the leading voices among small business massage therapists - sounding the alarm about unintended consequences of the state's crackdown on human trafficking.

In 2017, there were 258 cases in the state of workers making little to no pay - forced to work or perform sex acts. Some of the illicit activity is happening in storefronts posing as massage therapy businesses.

"The brothels haven't left and they're really confusing the public," Ford said.

Among the stricter new rules, the state is moving to roll out is a mandate that every treatment room must be at least 10 by 12 feet. Many if these small businesses say the cost of expansion could put them out of business.

More than 2,800 people have signed a petition against the new rules.

Ford, wearing her red "Defeat Human Trafficking" T-shirt, told regulators that they're missing the mark - hurting the good guys, not the sex traffickers.

"Those (illicit) businesses are not even registered with the record of deeds. There's absolutely nothing we can do," Ford said. "We send them to the police - they say there's nothing we can do, go to the board. We send them to the board of massage therapy - they say there's nothing we can do, send them to the police. And then we go to the public, and the public doesn't care."

Today's public hearing is not the end of the conversation. The public comment period continues through mid-May.

State regulators are scheduled to vote on the new rules June 21.
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