Anne McEnerny-Ogle recalls several years ago after Oregon tightened its laws over massage facilities she started noticing businesses that would pop up in strip malls in Vancouver. She observed how these businesses often had odd hours and customers who would park in nearby neighborhoods.
When neighbors got involved, they realized these businesses were fronts for possible illegal sexual activity and human trafficking, said McEnerny-Ogle, who has since been elected mayor of Vancouver. Since then, she said local and state government have been nibbling away at the problem.
“This is an old problem that our officers have been working on for years, oh my gosh,” McEnerny-Ogle said.
Now, legislation is advancing in Olympia intended to give police officers one more tool to crack down on unscrupulous massage parlors that law enforcement and neighborhood activists have long grappled with in Clark County.
‘Without photo ID’
Since the problem emerged, both the city of Vancouver and Clark County passed ordinances in 2014 requiring businesses that offer massage therapy and reflexology to provide proof their employees are licensed by the state. A year later, lawmakers passed a bill targeting owners who allow the unlicensed practice of massage therapy or reflexology.
But McEnerny-Ogle said that some of these massage parlors found a loophole to evade scrutiny.
When law enforcement officers show up to a questionable massage parlor, employees show various state certificates allowing them to practice massage therapy or reflexology. None of the employees have identification verifying they are the legitimate holder of the certificate, she said. Currently, the employees are not required to have identification that matches their professional certificate.
“You can’t even get into Costco without your photo ID, and yet we are not requiring individuals who are touching your body to show you photo ID,” McEnerny-Ogle said, speaking before a Jan. 18 hearing of the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee.
State Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, said law enforcement officers have told her they’ve heard certificates being printed off as soon as they enter a massage parlor.
In response, Kraft has introduced House Bill 1082. The bill is intended to remedy the situation by requiring massage or reflexology therapists to carry government-issued identification that matches their certificate. Sens. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, and Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, have sponsored Senate Bill 5097 as companion legislation.
“This bill addresses organizations that may appear from the outside to look like a legitimate massage or reflexology establishment,” Kraft said at a Jan. 25 hearing of her bill before the House Health Care and Wellness Committee. “However, on the inside, there are very different activities taking place, some that are part of sex trafficking operations in which women are forced to work in an illegitimate and illegal practice.”
Kraft told the committee the bill would help law enforcement and health inspectors determine if the business is legitimate.
During the committee hearing, Chief Assistant Vancouver City Attorney Jonathan Young said he regularly hears frustrations from officers who make contact with businesses suspected of illegal activity but are stymied when the employees show a massage or reflexology certificate.
“This isn’t just a Vancouver problem,” Young said. “This is a statewide problem.”
During the hearings, both Kraft and McEnerny-Ogle said the legislation would protect legitimate massage and reflexology therapists. Melanie Stewart, a representative of the Washington chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association, told both the Senate and House committees her group supports the legislation.
Kraft introduced legislation during last year’s 60-day session, but it ended up stalling. During the Legislature’s current 105-day session, both bills have passed out of committee.