News Story

Good With His Hands, But Sidelined By Massage License Requirement

Study: 'You need a license for that' mostly about keeping competition down, prices up

A person who wants to be a massage therapist in about 10 states simply lines up an employer and starts working. For consumers, quality is assured by the fact that the employer oversees the new therapist’s performance and training – and loses customers if the new employee is not up to the job.

That’s not the case in Michigan though, because the state requires individuals to jump through a series of hoops before granting them permission to make a living as a massage therapist.

Austin Loose, a 21-year-old from the Saginaw area, learned this the hard way. He paid thousands of dollars for training and classes, and more for a state licensing application and mandatory tests. Today, he’s stuck trying to repay students loans despite never obtaining his massage therapy license.

Michigan requires 500 hours of training to become a licensed massage therapist. Students must also pass an exam, and pay application fees and other fees, all in addition to thousands of dollars in tuition for training just to be able to legally practice.

Austin and Login, his twin brother, both enrolled in a massage therapy program at the Dorsey School in Saginaw in 2015. Both Austin and Login eventually graduated from Dorsey — where tuition and fees cost around $16,800 – with debt around $10,000 each.

The brother’s grandmother, Sharon Weaver, said Austin is “reluctant to talk about” his story but gave her permission to tell it.

The twins graduated at the same time, but when it came to taking the test, only Login was able to pass it. Austin, who has a learning disability, failed three times. The application fee is nearly $100 and the cost of the exam can be around $200.

“Austin has been diagnosed with Tourette's from an early age, which has made testing difficult all through school,” Weaver said in an email. “The massage therapy program was easier for him as it was learning physically.”

After the exam, Austin realized some of the questions he missed were about taxes, “which would not be necessary (for him to know) when working for someone else,” Weaver added.

The massage therapy test has questions about the human body, but also on gaining clients, the culture and history of massage, and more.

“Now he is so discouraged, he cannot face [the] exam again,” Weaver said. “However, even though he can never earn a dime through massage, he is stuck with $10,000.00 loan.” Austin is now studying home health aide while Logon plans to return to massage therapy after a break.

Austin said after going through the whole program, he’s upset he can’t put what he learned into practice.

"You can study as much as you want but never know what will be on a test,” Austin said, according to Weaver. “If you don't pass, nothing helps you study for the next test, as questions are random. And now it prevents me from doing any legal work. Impossible to use what I proved through cost and time of graduation."

Michigan only began licensing massage therapists in 2009. The state law requires massage therapists to be licensed and creates a board to oversee the practice. The Board of Massage Therapy has 11 members serving four-year terms.

Jarrett Skorup, a policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and author of a new Mackinac Center study on occupational license laws, said Michigan should review the many licensing mandates the state imposes.

“Austin’s situation shows how state licensing laws restrict people from working, blocking their path to honest work,” Skorup said. “Were Michigan residents in danger prior to 2009 when the law went into effect? Is the public worse off in Indiana, which required no licensing of massage therapists [prior to 2014]? There is no evidence that state mandates for fees, hours and training is protecting the health and safety of Michigan residents.”

“Like most licenses, these rules are in effect because the industry groups lobbied for them in order to make money and protect itself from competition,” he added. “There are plenty of other states who don’t have near the licensing requirements that we do, and the Legislature should take a long look at reviewing our regulations.”

Licensing laws for all types of occupations have cost Michigan 125,480 jobs and cost citizens $10.4 billion annually in higher prices, according to Skorup’s new study.

The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs cited state code when asked for comment.

“Legislation effective January 9, 2009, amended the Michigan Public Health Code [and] established that an individual shall not engage in the practice of massage therapy unless licensed under this part,” said Michael Loepp, spokesman for the department. “Administrative Rules for massage therapy were promulgated in 2012. It was not until 2012 that a Michigan license pursuant to the Public Health Code was issued for a massage therapist.”

“Pursuant to the massage therapy rules...if an applicant satisfies the requirements of [the law] by November 29, 2014, he/she is presumed to satisfy the requirements of subrule (1)(a), (b), and (c) of R 338.709,” he added, noting that massage therapy professionals weren’t licensed by the state before January 9, 2009.

The American Massage Treatment Association, which frequently lobbies for the industry to be licensed, did not respond to a request for comment.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated with new information. Indiana began licensing massage therapists in 2014.