Surviving the Desert of Bureaucracy

I was in the desert waiting, watching, praying, hoping for a miracle to come. Yes, a few months ago I was celebrating the liturgical season of Lent and looking forward to the miracle of Easter, just as were most other Christians around the world at that time. That’s not the waiting, watching, praying, and hoping I meant, though. No. I was doing all of the above because of bureaucratic ineptitude.

I am trained as a massage therapist, a trade that requires state certification to legally practice. Even though I sent in my paperwork before Christmas, they still couldn’t deliver my certification by the promised processing date. They couldn’t give me any kind of favorable reply on the timeline–not even a bare estimate of when I might be able to expect it. Either they were out of their depth, or they just got tired of my calling and refused to give me an answer. I couldn’t tell.

Seedy, Darkened Rooms: The History of U.S. Massage

Why is the massage industry regulated so strictly, and why is it such a trial to get a license in a timely fashion? Answering that requires a bit of a history lesson and a comparison between the massage industry in the United States with the same industry “across the pond” in Europe. Massage has been in use for thousands of years, as indicated by ancient artwork from many civilizations depicting it being performed. In Europe, it has its roots in this ancient and well-respected tradition, which uses massage almost exclusively for therapy.

In the United States, things went a little awry when massage was introduced, however. Say the words “massage parlour” or “masseuse” and images are immediately conjured up of unsavory – usually sexual – activities happening in seedy, darkened rooms. This, unfortunately, is the heritage of massage in the United States since for many years it was used for purposes other than the strictly therapeutic. There were still practitioners who performed massage for therapy, but almost an equal number practiced other kinds of “massage.” In Europe, very little of this happened in the massage industry, so they are far more open to the idea of massage and far less worried about how their bodies are manipulated during the treatment. In fact, many U.S.-trained therapists are warned that Europeans don’t understand why they need to be appropriately draped while on the table, because clients don’t have to worry about that sort of thing in Europe. They may have to be informed about the legally-required practice when they visit here. Otherwise, a therapist may accidentally walk into the treatment room to find his European client completely exposed.

In the United States, the government and law enforcement are still trying to clean up the industry to make it safe for people to receive therapeutic massage. Thus, the industry as a whole is now highly regulated, despite the fact that great strides have been made by the industry itself to clean house. With this history in mind, it is easy to see why the government has involved itself so heavily in the regulation of the industry. Unfortunately, in wanting to protect both the public and the massage therapists themselves from sexual predators, they have made the process of becoming licensed a painful chore.

Why Should the Government Hold Livelihoods Hostage?

In the meantime, while I was waiting and waiting for my license, I still had bills to pay, including the rent for the room I was going to use as my studio – a hefty $315 per month. Fortunately for me, I had another job during the school year as a private tutor, which paid enough that I was able to squeeze by. I wondered what happens to all the people out there hoping to receive similar certifications for their trades and who don’t have the means to provide for themselves or their families while they wait. Why should the government hold their livelihoods hostage while it pushes papers?

To be fair, the particular bureau to which I applied was swamped at the time: California was changing regulations in the massage field at the beginning of the year, and many people wanted to submit their applications in time to be “grandfathered in” under the old regulations. The paperwork checkers had a lot to do, I am sure. Nonetheless, while bemoaning the problem with friends and family members who seconded my complaints, I wistfully thought of how much better it would be for a private company to take charge.

An evil, duplicitous, capitalistic company? Blasphemy! Wouldn’t they be more concerned with their bottom line than background checking to protecting the public from criminals?  The government might be slow, but we can trust it to do the job more efficiently and thoroughly than a private company. Or can we?

The Bottom Line Keeps Companies Honest

First, it is true that a private company would care about its bottom line. In order to exist as a private company, they must have a decent flow of income to keep the doors open. While focusing on income has been known to cause problems, it benefits customers overall by making sure that the company operates as efficiently as possible. If they lack efficiency, customers will go to another company that they know will solve their problems faster, which hurts the first company’s profits. Even the government can be a “customer” in such cases by contracting with a private company to process the licenses. If the company cannot deliver on its promise to efficiently deliver the licenses, then the government could contract with a different company. If people are not satisfied with the wait times, they will go somewhere else. We are an impatient race, after all.

What if trying to beat the competition causes a different problem? Companies might try to meet deadlines by cutting corners and not thoroughly background checking so that they can fulfill their daily quota. Fortunately for us, we live in a modern age: Companies can’t get away with fraud or dishonest practices for long. Check the news channels, and you will find a new secret exposed every day, thanks to the worldwide web and cameras in mobile devices. A company that fails to thoroughly background check massage license applicants won’t be able to hide the fact that they let a felon here or a sex offender there slip through their watchful gaze because they weren’t really being watchful in the first place. The company would be shut down (again, bad for their bottom line), and a more honest company would take its place.

So the bottom line is an effective tool for keeping companies efficient and honest. Too bad the government does not have the same motivation, since they are trillions in debt and can resort to demanding more tax dollars from the citizenry. Otherwise, I might have had my certification by mid-January like I had hoped. Instead, I continue waiting in the desert, hoping for my certification to miraculously make its appearance.

EDIT: My certification did not arrive until April sixteenth – sixty-six business days after they received all the pieces of my application and thirty-six days after they said they would likely have it processed and approved. By that time, I had missed the spring rush for my business, reducing my income noticeably. Thank you, government bureaucracy. Thank you very much.

Author: Julia Wilson

Julia Wilson graduated from Hillsdale College with a B.S. in Biology and minors in Chemistry and Theatre. She applies her scientific knowledge to her career as a massage therapist and aromatherapist, while satisfying her artistic side by reading, singing, dancing, writing, creating works of calligraphy, and enjoying and participating in theatre whenever possible.

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