A Twin Cities acupuncture clinic with ties to a school whose massage program was shuttered by the state last year over suspicions of sex trafficking is facing questions about its practices, Axios has learned.
What's happening: A class action suit filed in April against the American Academy of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (AAAOM) alleges that the clinic's owner engaged in an "illegal, intentional, and systematic scheme" to steal wages from its acupuncturists.
- The federal complaint, which hasn't been previously reported, claims the owner didn't pay overtime or provide meal breaks, and illegally withheld 5% of employees' salaries. The plaintiffs' attorney says pay was withheld to offset losses from canceled appointments.
- Three named plaintiffs, who either currently work at the clinic or once did, are seeking unspecified damages on behalf of all impacted employees.
Context: Minnesota's Office of Higher Education shuttered the AAAOM school's Chinese-language massage program and ordered the former owner, Changzhen Gong — who still owns the clinic — to relinquish control in 2020, after its office "determined there is a theme of prostitution and/or human trafficking" involving students and internships.
- The school has since reopened under new ownership as the American Academy of Health and Wellness. The change of ownership was approved by the state Office of Higher Education in April 2021.
- The lawsuit against the clinic names Gong, as well as "successors."
What they're saying: Attorneys representing Gong and his company denied all allegations in a legal filing.
- Gong disputed overtime claims via email and told Axios plaintiffs are being paid at an agreed-upon rate. He also said there are no successors to his company, contrary to the lawsuit's claims.
Zoom out: AAAOM was featured in a recent report from nonprofit Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation that details troubling signs of sex trafficking in state-authorized schools across the nation. The researchers behind the case study highlight failures in oversight and enforcement related to the issue.
- The report, highlighted in a USA Today investigation, has caught the eye of federal regulators and lawmakers.
- The U.S. Department of Education sent a letter this month to the accrediting agency that renewed AAAOM's certification in 2018, seeking more information about that vetting process and approval of the change in ownership.
- The U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee is also calling for more action to address sex trafficking in trade schools.
Of note: School officials have denied the trafficking claims, saying the program was unfairly targeted.
- Gong told Axios he is "currently exploring avenues ... [for] obtaining a retraction" of the state Office of Higher Education's allegations.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the school and clinic are separate entities and have different owners, as of April 2021.
- It has also been corrected to reflect that the allegation over why the clinic owner withheld pay came from the plaintiffs' lawyer (not the formal complaint).
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