Even before the pandemic, it was hard to make ends meet as a massage therapist for college athletes. After seven years as a massage therapist for the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams men’s basketball team, I received what I considered a big promotion.
The coaching staff at the university’s men’s tennis team offered me a temporary contract for five days of massage therapy for their athletes. The call came in early February, and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect: I genuinely needed extra money to pay rent.
My first day with the tennis program went great. The team was friendly and appreciative, and I was excited about the prospect of treating all six players as they continued their spring season. I hoped the temporary stint with the team would turn into an annual gig, helping fulfill my career goal of working as a sports massage therapist for collegiate and professional athletes. At the very least, the extra massage therapy sessions would provide some small stability in income.
Just as everything seemed to be falling into place, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and my profession vanished into thin air. The collegiate athletic conference canceled spring sports competitions in March, meaning the tennis team no longer needed me. Just like that, I was out of work — and my rent was due in a week.
Many people consider massage therapy an exorbitant luxury, but I see it as a tool for injury prevention, rehabilitation, and recovery. A number of high-profile professional athletes are starting to incorporate massage therapy into their postgame routines — Kawhi Leonard, last year’s NBA finals MVP, said he gets a massage after every game. Sports massage therapy is an essential part of many athletes’ recovery routines, but now, with a worldwide pandemic underway, there are no more sports.
I had already learned the hard way that massage therapy is usually not a full-time job. Therapists can perform only 20 to 30 hours of massage a week because of the physical demands. Even with a limited workweek, there are few opportunities for sports massage therapists to work anywhere close to full-time.
I’d achieved my dream job of being a massage therapist for a Division I team, but I knew it would never pay my bills. (The most I’ve ever earned from the VCU Rams is about $2,000 in a calendar year.) The new gig with the tennis team was going to see me through another month of rent, but that opportunity crumbled because of Covid-19. I couldn’t even apply to massage therapy jobs if I wanted to. Therapeutic massage clinics in Virginia technically reopened last month with guidelines that both practitioners and clients wear face coverings. However, massage demand has cratered since the start of the pandemic. My preferred local clinic called back just three of its eight massage therapists to return to work.
I’m more worried about the possibility of being evicted from my home than I am of coming down with Covid-19.
It doesn’t help that my industry is often unfairly and inaccurately stigmatized as a sexualized practice. When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced mandatory stay-at-home orders in March, he echoed common stereotypes about my line of work by calling clinics “massage parlors.” These misconceptions extend to how people think about whether it’s now safe to get a massage.
I would feel very comfortable returning to work right now. More than half of U.S. states, including Virginia, have reopened massage clinics since May. Many require businesses to deep-clean surfaces, stagger appointments to accommodate physical distancing guidelines, and ask employees and clients to wear masks at all times. People fall ill from Covid-19 through droplets generated by talking and coughing, not physical touch. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, face masks help mitigate transmission.
I’m more worried about the possibility of being evicted from my home than I am of coming down with Covid-19. The sudden loss of expected income is a common experience for freelancers, but this time feels different. My idea to offer massage therapy to friends and family is out the window. I also had to give up on my idea of starting an Airbnb experience teaching massage to local tourists. All I have left is a new career goal: finding a job as a remote software engineer.
I started looking into a career change to web development last August. Now that my schedule is wide open because of the Covid-19 crisis, I’ve doubled down on this new career trajectory. I put together a learning plan of websites and portfolio projects to work on daily, and I started applying to jobs. Each rejection used to bring me down, but now I use it as motivation. I’ve managed to make ends meet by finding work in technical writing on the side.
Today, I am feeling hopeful. I have a definite plan to shift careers and enough money to cover a few months of rent. Jobs in web development and technical writing are better suited for repeated bouts of social distancing orders thanks to the flexibility to work remotely. Technology is keeping me employed in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century.
That’s not to say I’ve given up on massage therapy, especially now that clinics are open. Getting a massage with a mask on may not be the most relaxing experience — but I’m sure if you close your eyes, it will feel just as good.