ITHACA, N.Y. – At a staff meeting in July, employees at the Finger Lakes School of Massage’s Ithaca campus created vision boards. On large white sheets, they jotted down characteristics that make a good campus director, incoming student and school. Those vision boards were crumpled. A member of the school’s corporate leadership objected to keeping them on the wall and threw them in the garbage, according to multiple Ithaca employees.
“That’s the visual I have in my mind when I think of the current management,” said Jeannie O’Neill, former regional director of education for FLSM. “Everyone was feeling violated … It felt disrespectful,” she said.
The Finger Lakes School of Massage was founded in Ithaca about 25 years ago and was acquired by the TruMantra holding group in 2003. Though FLSM’s Ithaca campus was folded into the TruMantra Group 15 years ago, multiple local administrators said they had autonomy over day-to-day operations until about this year.
The Ithaca Voice spoke with four former Ithaca employees and one current student, who alleged that senior leadership has recently pushed for increased enrollment and professionalism to the detriment of the campus’s longstanding culture and curriculum. The conflict between local staff and senior leadership came to a head in September, when multiple employees were either terminated or walked out.
Senior management did not respond to requests for comment on former employees’ allegations but provided a statement summarizing the school’s licensing and accreditation as well as its graduation and retention rates.
“FLSM carries a strong bench of adjunct, part-time, experienced instructors from the community, some having taught at the school for more than 22 years…FLSM is in good standing with the State of New York, ACCET, and the Department of Education,” the statement reads.
O’Neill began working at FLSM in 2016 and was terminated on Sept. 10. O’Neill often slips the campus’s nickname – “the love school” – into conversations about it, but said in recent months the school’s culture changed. O’Neill and others said corporate leadership – including TruMantra CEO David Merwin, corporate consultant Shannon Yerkic, and the new director of the Ithaca campus, AJ Sare – created a hostile work environment for local employees.
Two days before O’Neill was terminated, Sare sent an email to the administrative team with new dress code and scheduling rules. “I am listing two non negotiable items now to allow you and your teams to be prepared to adhere to it by 9/17/2018,” the Sept. 8 email, acquired by The Ithaca Voice, reads.
The changes to scheduling impacted O’Neill, as well as student services director Jessica English and regional director of financial aid Beth Tomlinson. According to Tomlinson, administrative directors had always enjoyed paid lunch hours and flexible shifts. The email mandated that all administrators work either 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., with at least one director on campus until 8 p.m. every night.
O’Neill said these shifts were disruptive to employees who had made commitments based on the existing schedule. For instance, she taught yoga classes and led workshops to supplement her FLSM income.
In addition, O’Neill said she thought the new shifts were impractical. According to Sare’s email, the shifts were designed to make directors “accessible to our student’s and staff’s needs.” O’Neill said students were not on campus the same hours each day and were there until about 9:30 p.m. some nights, so she sent Sare an email asking for clarification.
“You would like a director on duty on the nights that the students are not in class past 5?…Who is opening the school if all administrative staff are there from 9-6? Students arrive at 8:10 am many days,” O’Neill’s email read, in part. “I appreciate your guidance on these questions,” she signed off.
O’Neill sent her email on Sunday, Sept. 9. She also reached out to Merwin by phone to discuss Sare’s email but said he would not discuss the issue. On Monday, Sept. 10, O’Neill sat down with Sare for a meeting and Merwin joined by phone. O’Neill said the two men told her she was terminated, effective immediately. She said they cited insubordination – specifically, that she’d left the office before 5 p.m. the previous Friday – as the cause. She said she did not receive written notice of termination.
Tomlinson walked out hours after O’Neill was fired and never returned to her job. She said she had heard rumors that management had planned, “If we fire Jeannie then I’m sure Beth will walk, so two birds with one stone.” She had been concerned about the school’s management for months, she said, and O’Neill’s termination was the final straw.
Tomlinson said changes to class scheduling and record keeping meant that students did not automatically meet the requirements for the New York state board exam when they completed their program. New York state requirements to become a licensed massage therapist include 1,000 hours of classroom instruction, 150 hours of which must be spent doing “practice on a person.” Tomlinson said students were left to track their own progress toward these benchmarks.
“Is it good practice to sell a program without telling students that it doesn’t automatically meet state board requirements?” Tomlinson asked.
Tomlinson said tuition is about $17,000 in Ithaca as of last spring, yet the management team “was not telling students that it’s the students’ responsibility” to meet state requirements. She said she and O’Neill tried to bring concerns about tuition financing and curriculum to senior management but were allegedly told they were “too emotional, had too many feelings” to participate in decision-making.
Current FLSM student Ciara Ames shared Tomlinson’s concerns about meeting state requirements. Ames said staff turnover in September led to canceled classes, a shortage of clinical supervisors and administrative disorganization that made tracking classroom and clinic time difficult.
“As students, we have no idea where our minutes stand,” Ames said.
According to Ames, in the two weeks following O’Neill’s firing, about 75 percent of administrative staff left the school. She said when she showed up to school on Sept. 17, multiple classes did not have teachers. “Things were just a mess that entire week,” she said.
Ames said as of early-October, “things appear to be returning to normalcy” for students. She said she remains worried, though, that there will not be enough classroom and clinic time available to meet board requirements on time.
The TruMantra Group’s statement disputes these claims.
“Over the past month, FLSM experienced some changes in its staffing levels, and while we will not comment on any staff or personnel-related issues, we can report that during this time FLSM has continued to meet its commitment to delivering unparalleled education to both current students and alumni. No classes were canceled and all students will graduate on time and with the extraordinary education they expect from FLSM,” the statement said.
Ana Ottoson, the campus’s clinic coordinator, was one of the employees who walked out in the wake of O’Neill’s firing. She said she and a group of co-workers sent a list of demands to the TruMantra management team, including that O’Neill is reinstated and that Yerkic and Sare be investigated. The Ithaca Voice has not reviewed correspondences concerning these demands, but Ottoson said her perception that the company’s leadership “flat-out refused” to meet them led her to quit her position.
“I got the news Jeannie was fired on a Monday, and I just did not go back in,” she said.
Employees and former employees have met with the Tompkins County Workers Center to discuss their concerns. O’Neill said the group is seeking redress for a hostile work environment that included “systemic misogyny” and retaliation against employees who raised concerns and said they plan to file a complaint with the EEOC.
In the meantime, former employees said they want to bring issues at the school to light so that new staff and students will know what to expect. “I just want them to know what they’re walking into,” O’Neill said.
“They’re not holding onto the FLSM culture that has been so integral to Ithaca’s community for 25 years,” Ottoson said. “They’re turning it into just another generic for-profit.”