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Liability Possibilities in the Spa

Written by  Antonia Schreiber, L.E., L.M.T.
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Liability Possibilities in the Spa

Thus far, there are random stories that stick out in my professional career as an aesthetician as strange milestones. The first story that comes to mind is when I had to explain to a former employee why her two shih tzus could not lie under the aesthetics table while she provided services. Or, the beyond-irate pregnant woman who ripped her client intake form up in my face, sprinkled it over my head like confetti, and yelled at me for denying her a massage because she had a high-risk pregnancy in her first trimester. I was 19 the first time a client blatantly and unabashingly asked me to satisfy him; I ran and hid in the storage room for an hour before my boss came and found me. Last summer, I took a picture of the SUV and license plate number of a man who asked me the price of a sensual massage. I posted those pictures on Facebook, explaining the legality of my services versus prostitution. The list goes on and on. Despite all the jesting and fun I poke at most of my past situations, there are several incidents over the years that are living proof of liability issues.

Liability Example #1
A fun, easy-going group of at least five new clients in their 40s booked a little get together at the spa. After they had tea and finished filling out their client intake forms, the staff and I all took our respective clients for their treatments. My client was a very fit, petite, and chipper woman. After introductions and a hand shake, I took my client, we will call her Bridget, to my treatment room for a massage. She had nothing noteworthy on her form and was enviably fit. She was one of those women who looks effortlessly sporty and healthy. She wanted a deep tissue massage because she had been particularly stressed recently.
“Life?” I asked her, as I do most of my clients when they mark off the ‘tension, stress’ box on our adult health history form.
She gave a chuckle and smiled with a nod. She was laid back and cool as a cucumber. This woman was just here with her girlfriends for a nice break from life.
I left the room and let her get ready for her massage.
“All set, Bridget?” I asked with a quiet knock on the door.
“All set!” she practically screamed with joy, throwing her head back and pushing her upper body off the table.
She was so excited to relax that she could barely hold still. A couple minutes into her massage I noticed that Bridget was breathing awkwardly. Her slow and spastic breaths were making her rib cage jump. I slowed down and lowered my head to hear if she was doing some unknown breathing exercise. To my regret and surprise, she was softly sobbing, almost trying to hold it in. Maybe she was so happy to finally relax that they were tears of joy? As a hopeless optimist, I decided to give her a minute and keep massaging without inquiry.
No luck.
Untitled-2“Bridget, are you okay?” I asked, lowering my head to the side of the table and keeping both hands on her back.
Emotional releases are unpredictable in bodywork. They can either be minor, or open the floodgate to a world of emotion. You never know what to expect.
Bridget’s whole body went limp as she started to cry out loud. Her arms fell to the side of the table. She was consumed by her tears. Her head was down as she sobbed into the face cradle. I kept my hands on her back and asked her if she needed a minute to herself. She wiggled her head back and forth in the face cradle and took a deep breath as she rolled her face out of the opening and plopped it on its side, looking toward me. I was still bent over with my head lowered, so I decided to squat down next to the face cradle with a hand placed firmly on her back so I could look her in the eyes.
She did not say a word but you could tell her eyes were searching for them. At this point I usually confess about crying at commercials, encourage the client to let it all out, tell them that I am not here to judge, offer a tissue, and move on. Not this time. There was something wrong. Really wrong.
Bridget pushed herself up off the table and swung her legs over the side, losing my meticulously draped sheets in the process. I stood up and handed her the sheet she had carelessly let fall from the table. She refused so I held it up over her chest as she sat there staring straight ahead with no expression on her face.
“I found out that I have breast cancer on Thursday. The doctor told me I have a 50 percent chance of beating it.”
No emotion in her face. Not even a blink.
“I am so sorry,” I said as my heart sank for this woman.
“I have not told my husband or my kids,”
she mumbled.
I stood there, still awkwardly holding her drape and did not have a clue what to say. I was still in my early 20s. I had been a licensed massage therapist for roughly five years but this was a first. What do you say when someone tells you this?
Her eyes started to well up as she burst out, “You are the only person I have told. My friends don’t even know.”
Step back from the emotion of knowing that you are the only person in a complete stranger’s life who knows one of the hardest battles she will ever fight. You have a job to do and that is to safely and professionally provide a service. After asking Bridget a couple of questions about the cancer and her prognosis, I had to be a selfish professional. I had to tell her that for her health and safety I could not give her a massage. To put it simply, it absolutely sucks telling a client who has come to you for reprieve that they are a liability to themselves, and you, and that because we did not know enough about her cancer, I did not want to cause any further damage.
My head was spinning as I sat down across from her on my stool. She begged me not to leave the room because she did not want her friends to know something was wrong. I sat with her for the hour and we talked. I got to know about her family, where they lived, how much she liked going away in the fall with her kids, and how she feels that she cannot tell her husband or family for weeks because she wants to get a second and third opinion. I had to walk out of an emotional, private, and gut-
wrenching conversation pretending that we did not utter a word beyond the pressure of the massage or the temperature. We both walked out and I wrote in my subjective, objective, assessment, and plan (SOAP) notes on the back of my health-history form, “Client had been diagnosed three days prior to service with advanced breast cancer. No massage was performed on client.” It was heartbreaking to write it in such plain and hollow language. I refused the massage not only for her safety and privacy, but also to protect myself as a professional.

Liability Example #2
The good news is that not all liability issues have to be sad and heavy-handed. Take one of my oldest clients, Beatrice, for example. Beatrice is a socialite in her 80s who hails from a hustling and bustling metropolitan. Beatrice loves art, wine, the French Riviera, and being in the tranquil Catskill Mountains. She is one of my longest-standing clients to this day. Beatrice was always a little eccentric and fancied herself an interior designer by day and sommelier by night. She always had some project she was in a hurry to get to and was habitually late for her massage, facial, or tennis lesson. She loved being busy. After a decade of knowing Beatrice, it was becoming more and more difficult to know if she was just a wild and reckless free spirit or really losing her marbles. She would come into the spa with friends just to show off the décor and then rearrange my cut flowers or houseplants without asking. One day, I had a dry cough from the heat blasting in my room and was coughing my lungs out. She was trying to convince me that I had strep throat, but I knew it was just the heat.
Untitled-3“I highly recommend you reschedule your appointment! Antonia is quite sick and she needs to rest. I believe she is contagious.” Beatrice defensively proclaimed as my next client proceeded to walk through the front door to the reception desk.
I am not sure what expression came across my face, but my next client, who fortunately had known me for several years, gave a nod and smile, walked right into the waiting room, and helped herself to tea.
Years later, Beatrice came in for a massage and went missing. We could not find her even though her car was still in the front lot and her coat was on the rack next to her shoes. Where was she? Finally, the front desk knocked on the bathroom door and found her. Giving anyone the necessary privacy for such matters, we left her to her business. After 15 minutes, we knocked to make sure she was okay.
“Are you all right, Beatrice?” we probed.
“Quite so!” she replied on the other side of the door, in her old New England accent.
One hour went by. Two hours went by. Soon, there were three of us perched outside the restroom, listening to her scuttle in the 20-square-foot bathroom.
“What is she doing?” We would whisper to each other as we heard her move things.
Finally, the sound of the lock clicked and we scurried like a bunch of alley cats, so as to not be caught. Upon her customary 20-minute check out we all raced to the bathroom to see if she exhumed a body from the floor or fell through the wall and re-plastered it. It was a sight to behold. Beatrice, the designer that she was, had redesigned the restroom. She moved furniture, un-potted, swapped out, and repotted all the plants, and hung the moss that had once graced the orchid’s roots from the faucet. Had the toilet not been screwed to the ground, she would have moved that, too. Knowing her, she might even have tried. The mirror hanging over the sink had been removed and replaced with a picture that had previously resided elsewhere. After we picked our jaws up off the floor, we nearly died laughing. I say this with all the compassion and adoration for the old and senile, but we were amazed, horrified, and completely entertained, all with one breath. What was just as noteworthy was that she called me the next day to scold me for making her miss Wimbledon! After that, I had no choice but to call her estranged daughter and have a very mild, selective conversation, hinting that her mother might need some supervision.
The moral of the story is that you are in control of your spa, treatment room, and clients while they are in your care. Sometimes you have to draw lines and vocalize. No two clients or situations are ever alike. Treat them accordingly. At this point in my career, Beatrice is not booked for services unless she is accompanied by a friend. I flat out tell her that this is my spa and my home and that I decorate it however I want.

Liability Example #3
The most recent story of liability is near and dear to my heart as it happened to, well, let’s just say it happened to a “friend” named Emily. Emily owned, and loved, her own spa. One day, a devastating flood swept through her city and with it, her precious little cache. With the help of her employees and friends, she was able to reopen her spa within several months elsewhere, this time with not just one, but two locations! In the next town over, a building owner, Daniel, had given Emily the opportunity to reopen at his building. As generous as Daniel’s offer was, Emily was hesitant and evaluated the situation. Worried that Daniel would get too much insight into her spa, she debated for days whether she should relocate. As any skin care professional would do in such a situation, she consulted her mentor. Her mentor advised her to take Daniel up on his offer because, at the end of the day, Daniel had more money than her and would do whatever he wanted in the years to come, even if it meant building his own spa.
Untitled-4Despite the overall prosperity during her time with Daniel, Emily and her staff were subjected to many problems with his employees. From sexual harassment to theft, she documented incidents that occurred while in his building, but did not share it as she did not want to insult his generosity. Once, Daniel’s accountant even withheld over $3,000 which was owed to Emily for services rendered in his building for several months. The last straw was when Emily learned that Daniel had plans to build his own spa. She thanked him for being hospitable to her and her staff, packed her belongings, and relocated her spa.
A few days after Emily left, Daniel released a statement to the community that he, too, would have a spa. Luckily, Emily was prepared for the day when she would have to rival a larger spa and had great faith in her staff. The only problem was that there was a miscommunication with Daniel’s message, making the lines between the two spas unclear to the community. The lack of clarity worked in Daniel’s favor because Emily’s longstanding and devout clientele were not always sure which spa she was at. Emily felt that he had gone too far when he used images of her staff in a video that promoted his own spa.
“How dare he.” Emily thought. “How illegal! How unethical! How unprofessional!”
After consulting her advisors, Emily decided to tell Daniel that he had crossed the line. Without hesitation, she sent him an e-mail stating the problems and that there were other issues at hand that she wanted to discuss with him. When Daniel responded, he was very irate and unprofessional, accusing her of acting unethically and illegally, threatening her with legal recourse and sending a “Cease and Desist.” Under legal guidance, she responded one more time so they could try to come to an understanding. Unfortunately, they were unable to work anything out.
As the months passed and Daniel’s spa was built, Emily and her team kept close watch on his actions for a good reason as mistake after mistake was made, misconstruing whose spa was whose. Daniel even posted jobs with Emily’s spa name and displayed paintings with her name around town that advertised his own spa. His website even had her name on some of the links. On several occasions, Emily’s new clients showed up at Daniel’s spa and his spa manager told them to stay there for an appointment because they would be late for their appointment with Emily at that point. So much misinformation was presented on Daniel’s part that it was getting out of control.
I have presented Emily’s story to teach skin care professionals the following lessons:

  1. Always document an incident whether it is between your staff, clients, or another business. Take picture, screen shots, or any other evidence. Keep it compiled in a safe place.
  2. E-mails may not be written in stone, but they are immortalized. Daniel’s words and actions could be held against him in a court of law. Though Emily does not want to do so, she will be prepared. She saved and printed e-mails, as well as took pictures of posters and screen shots of numerous incidents.
  3. Sometimes you have to stand up for and protect yourself. Confrontation is not pleasant, but if you approach it in a calm and collected manner, with evidence, it will be much easier. If you need legal counsel, seek it. Never let someone intimidate you. 
  4. If you do not have a mentor, find one, or two!


Antonia-SchreiberAntonia Schreiber is a licensed massage therapist, cosmetologist, and electrologist. Schreiber established, owns, and operates The Windham Spa. As a sought after speaker and writer, she contributes to leading education firms and magazines, is a board member and consultant for the New York State Department of Education Career and Technical Education Advisory Committee, and is a volunteer educator and mentor to high school aesthetic and cosmetology students. Schreiber is currently finishing her certification program as a holistic aromatherapist. She recently became a certified mountain bike guide with the International Mountain Bike Association in order to continue volunteering with the Adaptive Sports Foundation.

 

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