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CWE restaurants held a job fair looking to hire dozens. They didn’t get many takers.

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ST. LOUIS — A dozen Central West End restaurants held a job fair Monday looking to hire more than 100 new workers heading into summer.

Barely a dozen came through the door.

For three hours, a mostly empty Chase Park Plaza ballroom served as an unwelcome metaphor for the tight labor market squeezing the hospitality sector.

“We just can’t find staff right now,” said Billie Kilts, who runs the sushi restaurant Drunken Fish on Maryland Plaza. “And it’s not just hard to find good employees, it’s hard to find employees, period.”

The hospitality sector is fighting to reopen after a brutal year. COVID-19 caseloads are slimming, vaccines are widely available, governments across the country are relaxing restrictions on public life, and patrons are returning. But bar and restaurant owners, scrambling to ramp up operations, are finding themselves unable to hire enough workers to meet the rising demand.

That has left some of the region’s restaurant owners, like at the Brentwood Vietnamese restaurant Mai Lee, without the staff to reopen as widely as they’d like. And at least one area restaurant, unable to hire, has closed outright: Steve and Sandy Schafermeyer, the owners of Malone’s Grill & Pub in Crestwood, said Sunday they were shutting down after 28 years. They were working 100-hour weeks and couldn’t keep it up.

At the Chase on Monday, bored general managers spent much of the afternoon scrolling on their phones and checking job websites, hoping for better luck on their advertisements there.

When the rare prospect entered the ballroom, those with tables close to the door pounced.

But 90 minutes into the event, some managers had spent more time talking to a Post-Dispatch reporter than any applicant.

Explanations for the dismal turnout were fairly uniform.

Paul Filla, the Chase’s general manager, put the blame on the $300-per-week boost to unemployment benefits recently renewed by Congress through early September. That, plus Missouri benefits that max out at $320 per week, means jobless checks could still be adding up to more than a full-time job at $15 an hour.

It’s made hiring very difficult for the service sector, Filla complained.

He conceded the extra money in last year’s federal relief aid made sense when the virus was at its height and vaccines were still in development.

“But what was warranted — what was needed — in Round 1 may not have been what was needed in Rounds 2, 3, 4 or 5,” Filla said.

DJ Holmes, the general manager at Kingside Diner on Euclid Avenue, offered a similar report. And the additional $600 and $1,400 stimulus checks, sent out in recent months, haven’t helped hiring, either.

“You just have more money so you don’t need to get back out there as fast,” he said.

Myhi So, the corporate operations director for the company that owns Drunken Fish, said the labor squeeze has left restaurants in an awkward position.

“People want to get out right now, so we have all this business,” she said. “We just don’t have the staff.”

Other bosses said they’re not giving up.

Zack Morelock, the general manager at Pi Pizzeria, also on Euclid Avenue, said his restaurant would be advertising a $15-per-hour wage starting later Monday.

“We’re hoping that throwing that out there will draw in some new interest,” he said.

Jordan Blackmer, who heads up Mission Taco Joint, said raising the wage has been a hit when he can actually sit down with a prospective employee.

“When we get people in the door, we tell them that, and they’re interested,” he said. “The trick is getting people to show up.”

Among those few who showed up Monday were a handful looking for second jobs to supplement income after a rough year.

Craig Bausley, on the other hand, said he was just tired of not working.

“Sitting at home collecting unemployment, I couldn’t stand that,” he said. “Because it’s gonna end in a minute anyway.”

Ian Froeb of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

For restaurant owners, 100% capacity brings hope and practical concerns

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