Are You Getting Fair Pay?

By Jean Robinson
[Government Relations]

What is fair compensation for massage therapists? This is a question we hear frequently. Before you accept a new job, take the time to negotiate your compensation. You don’t have to accept the first offer, and it’s important that you and your employer are on the same page.

Independent Contractor or Employee?
The first question you need to address is whether you are classified as an independent contractor or an employee. An independent contractor is essentially running their own practice, but using the facilities of another business. In this case, the massage practitioner designs the fee structure, decides what hours are worked, is responsible for all supplies, etc. ABMP strongly encourages independent contractors to have a service contract with the business providing the facilities. Find an excellent example of a Services Contract on under the “Business Management” tab.
If you are an employee, negotiation can get more complicated. The complaint we hear from members most often is that their employer will pay them a set amount when they provide a massage, but does not pay them for the time when they are not providing massage therapy but are still required to work (selling or demonstrating retail products, providing front-desk work, doing laundry, or even providing free chair massage).
We understand how frustrating that can be for a practitioner and it is well worth discussing this compensation structure before beginning employment. If you’re already employed and are not satisfied with your compensation, schedule a time with your employer to discuss it.

How Much Are You Really Making?
Here is a question to ask yourself. Does your compensation— averaged out over a week—equal at least minimum wage? Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers may lawfully average an employee’s earnings over the total hours worked in a week to determine if minimum wage requirements are satisfied.
For example, a massage therapist works a total of 20 hours and is paid $200. The average hourly rate is equal to $10 per hour and the minimum wage requirement is met. It doesn’t legally matter if the $200 in compensation was for providing six hours of massage work and 14 hours of noncommissioned or unpaid work. Employers are legally permitted to average commission earnings over all hours worked to satisfy minimum wage requirements. This does not mean employees are satisfied with this structure, nor should they be, in many cases.
California law, for example, has been evolving on this issue since at least 2005, when the California courts ruled that hourly employees must be paid for each hour worked and that their hours cannot be averaged over the course of a day or week to meet minimum wage requirements. In the recent Gonzalez v. Downtown LA Motors case, the California Court of Appeals extended that same idea to garage mechanics who are paid on a “piece-rate” basis. Additionally, in the Nalbandian v. Nordstrom case, a federal court in Southern California recently extended the rule to commissioned employees—although that case is not over yet, and the ruling could be appealed and overturned.
In general, there appears to be a trend toward the idea that, under California law, you must be paid for each hour worked, and pay cannot be spread out to satisfy minimum wage rules. When negotiating with a potential employer, we believe that a reasonable starting point would be to ask for a compensation amount for your massage work and an hourly wage for administrative or other work you provide.

Jean Robinson is ABMP’s director of government relations. Contact her at