WALLINGFORD — A state Department of Labor stop-work order against a local massage business reflects the absence of specific state or local regulations over massage businesses and what police say are the limitations of local law enforcement to conduct extensive undercover investigations.
A local resident filed a complaint of suspicious activity at Exquisite Massage, 1209 S. Broad St., with the state Department of Consumer Protection on Jan. 3 based in part on its reportedly all-male clientele.
DCP referred the complaint to three agencies — the labor department, the state Department of Public Health, which licenses massage therapists, and Wallingford police.
The Record-Journal obtained the complaint through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Department of Labor officials entered the business on Jan. 30 with assistance from two Wallingford police detectives.
Exquisite was ordered to close for failing to pay into workers’ compensation by misrepresenting employees as independent contractors and materially understating or concealing payroll, according to the notice taped to the door.
On the evening of the action, a woman who identified herself as the manager declined to give her name or answer questions.
A woman who identified herself as the manager's sister, but did not give her name, said by phone the manager did nothing wrong and had all of her paperwork in order. The woman declined to answer further questions.
After a stop-work order is issued, a business is allowed to reopen once it rectifies its deficiencies.
Steve Jensen, DOL spokesman, said Exquisite must submit paperwork showing that its employees are properly classified, to ensure compliance with payment of state taxes and benefits to the workers.
“Typically we allow the business to reopen as soon as they prove compliance,” he said.
As of Friday, Exquisite was still closed.
Exquisite is one of several massage businesses in Meriden and Wallingford listed on websites featuring user-generated reviews of sexual services.
"Typically we allow the business to reopen as soon as they prove compliance."
-Steve Jensen, DOL spokesman
The detectives who assisted labor officials during the Jan. 30 action found no evidence of illegal activity, according to Deputy Police Chief John Ventura.
The consumer protection complaint referral continues to be handled through the Department of Labor, Ventura added.
Police investigations of massage businesses are “very labor-intensive,” Ventura said, referencing a 2017 undercover investigation that followed similar stop-work orders issued by the labor department.
Police charged five women working at three massage businesses in town with prostitution in October 2017 after a lengthy investigation.
The arrests followed May 2017 stop-work orders over payroll violations.
One of the businesses, Sunny Spa, 600 N. Colony Road, had corrected its payroll deficiencies and reopened. Another business, Golden Crystal Spa, 320 N. Colony Road, was dissolved and reopened in the same location as Joanne Spa under a new owner.
Two employees of Joanne Spa, Hua Hua, 34, and We Xingzhen, 53, were charged with prostitution, permitting prostitution and unlicensed massage.
One employee of Sunny Spa, Xue Qin We, 50, was charged with prostitution and unlicensed massage.
Also charged with prostitution and unlicensed massage were two employees of King Spa, 329 Main St. — Xue Qin We, 50, and Jin Hua Li, 63.
All five women listed Flushing, New York addresses.
According to the state Judicial Branch website, none of the women was ultimately convicted of the charges.
Police weren’t able to determine a connection to human trafficking, Lt. Michael Colavolpe said at the time.
None of the three massage businesses has since reopened.
They continue to be listed on one of the websites featuring user-generated reviews of sexual services along with Exquisite Massage but with a red banner indicating that they’ve closed. Exquisite also now has a red banner indicating it has closed.
Police conducted similar operations in 2005 and 2008, which also revealed a connection to Flushing, New York, Colavolpe said.
The legwork involved in such investigations puts a strain on police resources, Ventura said.
Months of surveillance is time that could be devoted to other calls requiring immediate attention, like car break-ins and calls from mentally or emotionally disturbed individuals, he said.
“As an agency we’re stretched very thin,” he said.
There’s also the cost associated with storing seized items. After the 2017 arrests, police had to rent a storage container for $100 to $200 a month in compliance with state statute requiring that seized items be kept for one year.
Seized as part of the 2017 investigation were refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, towels, interior/exterior signs, massage tables, shower tables, sheets, computers and cash.
“No one wanted them,” Ventura said, “and we had to coordinate with Public Works to dispose of them.”
Letting the Department of Labor run the investigation is how police are responding for now, Ventura said.
The state Department of Public Health does not license or inspect massage businesses. Only individual massage therapists are licensed independent of a work location, said Elizabeth Conklin, DPH spokeswoman.
“Local health departments are responsible for regulating local business establishments if that is within their local laws,” she said.
The principal listed on Exquisite’s business license, Kaiju Yang, is licensed as a massage therapist in Flushing, New York, according to records. The license was granted April 22, 2019.
The names of other employees at Exquisite were not disclosed, so it’s unclear whether they are licensed as massage therapists.
Exquisite Massage is one of several massage businesses in Meriden and Wallingford listed on websites featuring user-generated reviews of sexual services.
A woman who said she was Yang declined to comment when the Record-Journal called Exquisite’s business phone number.
The Wallingford Town Council may take aim at the lack of regulation at its March ordinance committee meeting.
Councilor Chris Shortell, ordinance committee chairman, suggested last week that the group discuss whether the town Health Department should inspect massage businesses.
In an email to Corporation Counsel Janis M. Small, Shortell said he doesn’t want to “penalize existing, legit businesses, but rather to work against the ones that pop up and are involved in (human) trafficking.”
“I want to understand exactly what inspection requirements are in place,” he said in a statement this week, “and what our options are going forward, both from our health and police departments.”
In Wallingford, massage businesses are classified by town zoning regulations as personal service establishments, like a spa, nail salon or barber shop, and are allowed in most commercial areas.
Currently, the town Health Department does not license massage-only facilities, but licenses and inspects other personal service businesses.
Small said Tuesday that her first step in creating a potential ordinance would be to determine what authority Wallingford has to inspect massage businesses, since inspections are not mandated by state law like other types of personal services.
Stephen Civitelli, town health director, said via email that he wanted further information before commenting on his department potentially inspecting massage facilities.
Democratic state Rep. Liz Linehan, whose district includes part of Wallingford, said in a statement that she plans to ask the chairs of the legislature’s Public Health Committee to raise a bill that would change the statute to specifically give authority over massage businesses to local boards of health, and give them the ability to inspect at will.
“I would support a specific ordinance,” she said, “but I believe this is a stark reminder that continuing education at all levels is necessary.”
Craig Fishbein, a Republican member of the Wallingford Town Council and a state representative, said Friday that human trafficking is a concern and something that people may not realize happens here.
Although an advocate of small government, Fishbein said that “some form of inspection mandated by local ordinance would more than likely be appropriate.”