Private men's bathhouse Steamworks Chicago launched an online fundraiser Jan. 21 to continue covering the health insurance of its staff as the pandemic progresses.
In a GoFundMe post, General Manager Nirmalpal Sachdev said, "For the past 10 months Steamworks has been able to maintain the health insurance for all of our employees. Unfortunately, they informed us that they won't be able to continue that coverage starting February 1st. ... My ask is for $43,500.00. This will pay our three monthly insurance bills with $14,500 due by February 1st."
The fundraiser is active through March 1, according to the post. Steamworks closed in response to the COVID-19 crisis in mid-March 2020, just as restaurants and bars in Chicago did.
Sachdev told Windy City Times that the owners, who are based in California, have been committed to providing health insurance for staff and management, and they covered the costs personally before they were able to pick up some slack with a Paycheck Protection Program loan.
"Before the [PPP] loans rolled out, and were a chaotic mess, as was everything under that administration, they were having to fork over their own money to keep everybody insured at all their locations in the United States," he added.
Steamworks has over 70 front-line employees, as well as other corporate employees, nationwide, with 25 employees in Chicago. The company also operates facilities in Toronto and Vancouver, but, thanks to the Canadian healthcare system, those employees are not affected by the insurance concerns.
But the company did not receive a second PPP loan, triggering the company's realization that benefits would have to be cut in February. So Sachdev, who has been furloughed since July, began the fundraiser.
"I originally hesitated in doing it," he explained. "In the beginning, everyone was doing one. I was giving money to local businesseseveryone was, and I think you should continue to support them. I didn't think we were in such dire straights compared to other businesses. We were lucky enough to have owners prioritizing health care for the staff and wanting to pay that for them."
Sachdev thinks the fundraiser can keep the employees' coverage active through at least April, which he hopes might be an early possibility for a reopening date. That's when President Joseph Biden will reach his first 100 days in office and several benchmarks for the administration, including additional vaccination availability and widespread economic relief for the public and small businenesses, will have hopefully come to fruition.
Sachdev doesn't have his hopes up entirely, however. At several points during 2020 the pandemic seemed to be subsiding only to have resurgences that spoiled plans for small business owners eager to re-open.
"There's this 'carrot' for you to grab, and you hold on and hold on, and it gets away from you again," Sachdev said, adding that Steamworks will be ready to reopen once they get the go-ahead from the City. "If the city can get to a 'phase-5' reopening, that would be our cue."
Several localities such as New York City and King County, Washington, have issued guidances about the operation of bathhouses. Many bathhouses never closed in other states. Sachdev has been working on reimaging what a business that, for many customers, is intriniscally about intimate contact will look like after reopening.
"We have glory holes and barriers already set up," Sachdev said. "We talked about minimal contact with social distancing and we measured six feet apart [throughout the space]. We also talked about putting up plexiglass in some spaces where some people can hang over, and putting up occupancy limits and not using the [private] rooms."
He added, "We want to minimize the public contact, but still give people release, because we're all going stir crazy."
But for now, Sachdev's key priority remains keeping his team insured. "I want to keep that going so they get continuity of care for wherever they go to, but also so they can get access to vaccines. Ninety-nine percent of my team are people of color, and a good amount are people for whom English is a second language. They are all incredibly bright and intelligent leadersI don't want them to be left out."
Sachdev also wants to put to rest a persistent rumor that's taken hold during the pandemic, that Steamworks has been secretly open all along.
"We're not secretly open," he said. "But wouldn't it be cool if we could be? I'm here during the day and I hear every single noise and crackle. I'm still used to hearing the place filled with music."
Steamworks' employees' GoFundMe page is at bit.ly/39dySbD .