ROCHESTER – City staff has put eight massage parlors' licenses on probation as a result of a new inspection program designed to address human trafficking. Yet elected officials and massage professionals question whether the initiative is fair to immigrant owners.

Rochester and Olmsted County staff last fall started a health inspection pilot modeled on similar programs in other Minnesota cities. Sagar Chowdhury, an associate director at Olmsted County Public Health, helped start St. Cloud's program in 2018 and 2019.

Chowdhury told the Rochester City Council on Monday that the local inspection model represents a positive step toward helping human trafficking victims as inspections aren't driven by complaints but rather as requirements to keep local business licenses.

Eight of the city's 38 massage therapy businesses failed inspections earlier this year, largely for sanitary issues. City officials said traces of semen were found in several businesses, while others didn't routinely clean stations or change linens. One business had a therapist who wasn't appropriately dressed, and in some cases inspectors found full kitchens and living quarters — signs workers may be sex trafficking victims.

The council approved probation agreements with six massage parlors Monday night, with another two businesses set for similar agreements later this month. Probation for those businesses will last until April 2024.

Yet some council members and at least one professional expressed concern the inspections could have been frightening for Asian owners who didn't speak English well — all six businesses who went on probation Monday needed Mandarin-speaking inspectors during the probation process.

Inspectors didn't bring along interpreters when they arrived at businesses, though Chowdhury said city and county officials often waited for someone to translate for them once they spoke with owners.

Some council members took issue with that approach, either because owners may not have understood what was going on even with interpreters and because city staff didn't know who was translating. Council Member Shaun Palmer also pointed out criticism from massage professionals who argued clients sometimes leave semen in their businesses without workers' knowledge.

"When [workers] leave the room, they really don't know what the clients are doing when they're getting dressed," Palmer said.

Rochester officials say this first round of inspections is meant to be more educational as the city fine-tunes new ordinances around the issue. Businesses that failed inspections may not necessarily engage in illegal sex work, but inspectors found serious sanitary violations that need to be addressed.

"We wanted to see where the city of Rochester was," said Christiaan Cartwright, a license examiner with the city. "We wanted to see how businesses operated as-is."

Mary Jo Majerus, owner of Healing Touch Spa, told the council she'd like to see a joint learning session to educate newer massage professionals on the city's licensing process and requirements. She also recommended the city offer businesses a chance to reverse their probation status and set up a mentorship program connecting longtime massage therapists like herself with newcomers.

Council Member Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick supported Majerus' recommendations, saying the city needs to do more work fine-tuning the inspection process.

"I am looking forward to really readdressing this ordinance with some strong educational pieces," she said.