St. Louis hospitality sector still pleading for workers amid pandemic – St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Alex Henry, left, owner of Sureste restaurant, completes an interview application meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, with Daniel Polahar of Fairview Heights for a shift manager position at his Southeast Mexican-cuisine, yet-to-open restaurant in the City Foundry STL’s Food Hall. The Food Hall, along with several other service restaurant industry organizations, held a job fair recently to find new applicants to fill jobs.
Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com
Cody Wideman, center, who works in the administrative offices of Chaifetz Arena hands Rajdeep Rajpot, left, information on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, and directs him to continue the application process as St. Louis University student Emma Sidari, right, fills out an application for position with guest services. Chaifetz, along with several other service, entertainment and food industry organizations, held a job fair Tuesday to find new applicants to fill jobs. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com
ST. LOUIS — The City Foundry Food Hall held a job fair last week to hire about 50 people.
They were badly needed: The burgeoning Midtown hot spot has been so swamped since opening last month that owners started closing one day a week to catch their breath.
But when the doors opened on Tuesday, barely a dozen hopefuls showed up.
“It’s really tough,” said Susie Bonwich, the food hall’s operations director. “Everyone’s hiring right now.”
Eighteen months after COVID-19 first ravaged the regional economy, employers are still struggling to bring people back to work. Despite a summer of job fairs, hiring bonuses and an early end to special unemployment payments, the metropolitan area remains tens of thousands of jobs short of where it was before the pandemic. Those serving up food and entertainment remain the hardest hit.
A local music venue needs 20 more workers heading into peak season. The Enterprise Center complex, home to the St. Louis Blues, has been looking for 100 ushers, handymen, security guards and others. And more than one area restaurant owner, unable to find workers, has simply thrown in the towel.
The introduction of vaccines and corresponding loosening of restrictions drove seven straight months of job growth to start the year. But as of July, the most recent month for which data is available, hospitality was still employing 17,300 fewer workers or 11% less than it was in the summer of 2019.
Experts say some people are still staying home to protect themselves from the virus or take care of children. Others retired. And still more found work in other industries.
And now, the delta variant is threatening to prolong the recovery, prompting renewed restrictions and potentially raising new fears among workers and diners alike. It’s already showing in national reports: the U.S. economy added just 235,000 jobs in August, far short of the 1 million-person gains in June and July.
“Two months ago, I thought we would be out of it by the end of the year,” said Peter Mueser, an economist at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “Now, I look at the future and it’s conceivable to me that the service industry will be having trouble for a long time.”
Many in the industry try to look on the bright side.
Dave Bailey, whose restaurants include Rooster and Bailey’s Range downtown, is one of them.
Bailey already pays workers more than $15 an hour, plus benefits. And he’s had some success hiring back workers.
He cut to seven employees last spring, at the height of the region’s shutdowns. He’s hired back to 180, but is still 25 short of where he’d like to be.
At Blueberry Hill in the Delmar Loop, Joe Edwards had a similar story. He’s managed to hang on to a number of longtime employees — “enough to serve good food and strong drinks” — but he’s still about eight people short of the 54 he had before the pandemic. He said it’s no different at his Moonrise Hotel down the street.
Pat Hagin, managing partner at the Pageant concert venue, another Edwards business, told the Post-Dispatch he feels like he’s doing a lot better than his friends who run restaurants. He just hired 20.
But that still left him 20 short of his pre-pandemic roster of 95 workers heading into his busiest time of the year.
“We could all use more, there’s no doubt about that,” Hagin said. “It’s better than it was, but it’s still tough and it’s probably going to be tough for a while yet.”
At the Pageant, that means an occasional scramble to staff support positions like security.
Gus’ Pretzels in Benton Park is doing the same thing as the Foundry Food Hall: Since July, it’s shut down an extra day each week to give a break to a staff at three-quarters strength.
“Everyone was getting stressed and burning out,” said owner Gus Koebbe III, who took over for his father, Gus Jr., at the beginning of the year.
Bobby Tessler, owner of St. Louis Wing Co. in Rock Hill, closed completely last month.
After months of struggling at half staff, Tessler gave it one last shot in July when he offered $1,000, tax free, to any new hire who came to work on time for their first 60 days.
He got one taker, who quit after two weeks. A few weeks later, Tessler quit, too, tired of working overtime every day.
“I just couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.
Bosses give a number of reasons for their hiring woes.
Tessler blamed the federal pandemic unemployment payments, as much as $600 extra each week last year, which Tessler said rewarded people for not working.
He started employees between $11 and $13 per hour, which he said was a competitive wage. He called it unrealistic to expect a $15-per-hour starting wage at a fast-casual restaurant.
“I’ve talked to many other restaurant owners,” he said. “And we’re just sitting around, scratching our heads, wondering what it will take.”
Bailey was sympathetic. The service sector is hard, he said. The work can be thankless, diners rude, online reviews brutal. “There have definitely been rough, difficult days,” he said.
Add that to everyday problems exacerbated by the pandemic: Affordable child care. Living wages. Health care.
“It’s a big and complicated problem,” Bailey said, “just like people have big and complicated lives.”
Heading into fall, there are hopes that kids going back to school will free up parents looking to get back to work, the virus will settle down, and the march back to some semblance of normal will continue unabated.
At the Foundry on Tuesday, things didn’t look so promising.
Daniel Polahar, a 22-year-old physics student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, showed up looking to get back into the workforce after taking a year off and living at home with a mother at-risk for the virus.
“Now I’m looking to move out and get my own place, so I want to get a job and start saving up,” he said.
Yusuf Palada, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy (formerly the St. Louis College of Pharmacy), was also there looking for a job to replace the one he had at the City Museum before the pandemic.
There weren’t many others coming in behind them, though.
Workforce prospects were rosier just a mile away. At St. Louis University’s Chaifetz Arena, more than 40 people came through in four hours to apply for positions in guest services, security and the kitchens. Kimaya Gandhi, a 25-year-old master’s student in computer science, was among a number of Billikens looking for work. She said the money would help with rent.
The fair also drew interest from nonstudents like Denise Irvin, 47, of Grand Center, who already has a job in the health industry but saw the sign advertising $14 per hour and thought, “Why not?”
“Hopefully it won’t be too strenuous,” she said.
By the end of the afternoon, Devon Madara, senior event manager at the arena, pronounced herself pleased by the turnout.
She wasn’t celebrating yet, though. She has to find at least 10 more viable candidates to round out the guest services staff.
And then they have to work.
“We’re not into the season yet,” she said, “so we’ll see how many get through training and show up.”
Daily updates on the latest news in the St. Louis business community.
Austin Huguelet is the Post-Dispatch’s retail business reporter. He’s previously covered Missouri politics for the Springfield News-Leader.
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Alex Henry, left, owner of Sureste restaurant, completes an interview application meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, with Daniel Polahar of Fairview Heights for a shift manager position at his Southeast Mexican-cuisine, yet-to-open restaurant in the City Foundry STL’s Food Hall. The Food Hall, along with several other service restaurant industry organizations, held a job fair recently to find new applicants to fill jobs.
Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com
Cody Wideman, center, who works in the administrative offices of Chaifetz Arena hands Rajdeep Rajpot, left, information on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, and directs him to continue the application process as St. Louis University student Emma Sidari, right, fills out an application for position with guest services. Chaifetz, along with several other service, entertainment and food industry organizations, held a job fair Tuesday to find new applicants to fill jobs. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com
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