While most massage establishments are benign and provide legitimate massage therapy, treating stress, injury, and muscular tightness, these storefronts are not what the City is addressing.
“The bottom line is if we provide more regulations for these businesses, the fly-by-night operations will disappear,” said City Attorney John Coffey at the council meeting. “We’re looking to effectuate local control, and we’re going to make sure they are not having living quarters. The local control will allow us to make sure that what the state can’t do, we are doing.”
The City seeks to monitor massage businesses, notably those along Broadway and mostly downtown, with black, or opaque windows that prevent passersby from seeing in. Some residents see the massage parlors as unsightly.
Others suspect illegal activity because of the dark windows. In fact, Bayonne Public Safety Director Robert Kubert said the new ordinance comes after at least 10 complaints from Bayonne residents who were seeking massage services and were offered sex.Subsequent sting operations were carried out by the Bayonne Police Department. Kubert said that the NJ Enforcement Bureau used to coordinate with local authorities on issues like this, but the bureau has recently been less able too, due to budget cuts.
“I remember years ago, we would have the state come in and do the enforcement with us,” Kubert said, noting state regulations that required it. But more recently, he said, “We’ve asked [the state] a few times and they didn’t have the personnel to do it, so we changed our ordinance so we can do it.”
City officials are also trying to protect legitimate businesses. “We want to make sure the legit massage therapists, and the places that operate those services, aren’t compromised by other businesses that are operating [illegitimate]businesses condoned by the state of NJ.”
“If there’s nothing going on that’s improper or illegal,” said Business Administrator Joe DeMarco, “if there’s nothing, then they continue operating, if there is something there, then they have to move on.”
DeMarco also cited, as part of the reason for the ordinance, the City’s desire to beautify Broadway and attract new residential developments and new businesses.
“The bottom line is if we provide more regulations for these businesses, the fly-by-night operations will disappear.” – John Coffey
Living quarters code
When Coffey referred to “living quarters,” he meant massage parlors that have beds and living spaces, ostensibly to house masseuses.According to the Polaris Project, a Newark-based nonprofit that raises awareness about human trafficking, these “living quarters” raise a red flag for law enforcement tasked with identifying and disrupting human trafficking networks.In a March 29 report titled “The Typology of Modern Slavery: Defining Sex and Labor Trafficking in the United State,” the nonprofit identifies 25 types of human trafficking, including “Illicit Massage, Health, and Beauty.”
The report describes a business model allegedly like those suspected of operating in Bayonne. They tend to present a “façade of legitimate spa services concealing that their primary business is the sex and labor trafficking of women trapped in these businesses,” read the report. “Although they appear to be single storefronts, the majority are controlled as part of larger networks.”
The report estimates that one to three people own several businesses at a time, and there are“at least 7,000 storefronts in the U.S., and possibly far more.”
According to preliminary research by Polaris, managers working at the storefronts tend to be women of the same ethnicity, who started out by being trafficked themselves in the massage industry, until they worked their way up to become part of the trafficking network. The networks are connected to larger recruitment networks that attract women in their home countries, and immigrant women in the U.S. looking for work. The report said, “Most victims of illicit massage businesses are women from the mid-thirties to late fifties from China and South Korea. In other illicit health and beauty businesses, labor trafficking survivors are typically younger females (mid-twenties and older) from Southeast Asia.”
The City may be right to be wary. Only a few miles north, the Secaucus Town Council imposed a nearly identical ordinance in 2011, placing more responsibility with their Department of Health to effectuate local regulation.
In multiple cases, Secaucus found evidence of people sleeping at massage establishments and patrons being offered sex in exchange for payment. In the living quarters were amenities such as a fully-stocked refrigerator, a kitchen, nightstands, and dressers full of clothing, according to Carl Leppin, fire inspector at the time.
In 2013, the NJ Health Department fined the establishments $1,250 each. Secaucus fire code violations came to $18,000. Secaucus Fire Captain John Buckley said that several parlors were closed through a coordinated effort among the Secaucus Office of Inspections, the Secaucus Board of Health, and the Secaucus Police Department.
Then, in 2016, an undercover prostitution sting at a Secaucus spa on Meadowlands Parkway revealed masseuses offering prostitution services. The sting resulted in the arrests of the spa’s owner and two employees.
“It was an effective ordinance, and it gave the police the ability to enforce regulations that were previously unenforceable to rid this vice activity from our town,” said Secaucus Police Captain Dennis Miller. “It really gave us some teeth, as they say, to address this kind of activity going on in massage parlors.”
Change of ordinance
Like Bayonne in 2017, Secaucus in 2011 changed its ordinance. Because it has its own municipal board of health, Secaucus was able to require massage parlors to register and submit for yearly reviews to a local authority focused on health issues.
“We want to make sure they are meeting the guidelines and regulations as required,” said current Secaucus Business Administrator Gary Jeffas. “It’s just a double check from the board of health to make sure they are [enforcing our codes] and maintaining all of our requirements.”
As in Bayonne now, massage parlors in Secaucus are issued a license onlyif they submit a complete application to the town so that they can be vetted by the town, as well.
Jeffas said the regulations implemented by the Secaucus Town Council have been effective in the six years since it passed the ordinance. Save for that last sting operation in 2016, massage parlors have been less of a problem. “It’s basically been quiet since we’ve done this,” Jeffas said.
But cities across the county, and the country, still struggle with human trafficking and prostitution problems in the hospitality industry, bars, strip clubs, escort services, and domestic work, according to the Polaris Project’s report.
Bayonne is in the early stages of addressing this potential threat.
“No businesses that provide massage parlors have had any further complaints or arrests in the last few years,” said Jeffas. “Maybe in hotels and stuff, but not in the massage parlors.”
The report cites business models similar to those described by Jeffas: multiple owners, re-opening at different locations under different names.
Suspicions by officials in Bayonne, like Secaucus before them, may or not be warranted. Even though Bayonnehas not had any high-profile stings or roundups recently, Jeffas said, “Better safe than sorry. Regardless, it definitely goes down that road [to prostitution]. If these places go unregulated,” Jeffas said. “It can hit.”
Rory Pasquariello may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.