Sex assault complaints filed about workers at NC Massage Envy locations

Sex assault complaints filed about workers at NC Massage Envy locations

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Katherine Peralta | The Charlotte Observer) - Dotting strip malls throughout Charlotte is Massage Envy, the ubiquitous spa franchise embroiled in a nationwide scandal over sexual harassment allegations. In North Carolina, regulators said they are investigating about a dozen such cases that occurred over the last five years.

Nationwide, about 180 women have filed sexual assault lawsuits, police reports and state board complaints at Massage Envy locations, according to a story first reported by Buzzfeed News this week. Massage Envy has 18 franchises in North Carolina, including eight in Charlotte. At least one of the sexual harassment claims involve a Massage Envy location in Charlotte, records show.

The allegations come as an effort is already underway in North Carolina to regulate massage parlors.

A new state law will give the N.C. Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy the authority to license individual businesses and require them to report complaints of sexual misconduct to local authorities – something they were not previously required to do, according to Charles Wilkins, legal counsel to the board.

"One of the biggest problems is that establishments like Massage Envy don't report the actions when their therapists do something inappropriate. They don't report them anywhere – to the police or licensing boards. We have found that to be true (in North Carolina)," Wilkins said.

In the Charlotte case, a Massage Envy therapist was accused of forcing a female coworker to perform oral sex on him during a massage session in her home in fall 2015, records show. The therapist's license was revoked.

In a statement, the company said that the 180 reported incidents in the Buzzfeed story occurred "over a span of 15 plus years and 125 million massages."

"But, we believe that even ONE incident is too many, so we are constantly listening, learning, and evaluating how we can continue to strengthen our policies with respect to handling of these issues.

"Each of these incidents is heartbreaking for us and for the franchisees that operate Massage Envy locations, and we will never stop looking for ways to help our franchisees provide a safe environment at Massage Envy franchise locations," the company stated.

Wilkins said the N.C. board, created by the state legislature in 1999, is working on new rules that will include disciplinary standards for offending businesses. The board previously could only discipline the individual employee through measures like revoking their license or putting them on probation.

Wilkins noted that Massage Envy is not the only business that's been problematic in reporting sexual misconduct, nor is it the only reason North Carolina is working to regulate massage parlors more closely.

The state is expanding regulation over the industry for two primary reasons, Wilkins said: An influx of illegal, unlicensed massage parlors and the inability for the state to punish offending businesses.

"(Massage providers) need to report the violations so that this kind of thing doesn't happen to another person," Wilkins said.

In an email, Wilkins said that anyone who has a concern about massage or massage and bodywork services they received can file a complaint online at www.bmbt.org.

RESEARCHER MARIA DAVID CONTRIBUTED.