By Marie Saavedra

CHICAGO (CBS) — The United States Department of Labor says hiring surged across the country in March as employers added 916,000 jobs. Many of those jobs are in the hospitality sector as businesses like restaurants reopen. But finding enough workers to fill those jobs is proving to be a challenge for some local restaurant owners.

Steve Hartenstein says opening a new restaurant as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on is “exciting, scary and brutal.”

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He is the Managing Partner of Lucca Osteria and Bar, which is aiming to welcome customers in Oakbrook in May. A huge part of that preparation is hiring. Still, with so many laid off during the worst of the pandemic, applications for the 100 jobs he’s filing are only trickling in. 

“Now that so many people are getting vaccinated and feeling more safe, we thought, fantastic, but it’s not that way at all,” he said.

One might think people would be clamoring to get their jobs back, but restaurateurs say that’s not the case. A lot of people have left the industry altogether or they’ve found new ways to cover their bills. 

“The unemployment checks and the stimulus checks are keeping people at home,” said Hartenstein.

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With the state’s dining capacity at 25% and Chicago’s at 50%, staying healthy also remains a major concern. 

“Part of it is the vaccine for sure,” said Dr. Teolfio Reyes is with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which represents restaurant staff in Chicago and nationwide. “I think that will make a lot of people much more comfortable to go to work that are reticent. You’re coming into work, you’re trying to serve people food, and on top of that you’re having to police their behavior with the mask wearing, and then you’re depending on them for tips afterward. So it’s really a challenging, an uncomfortable situation.”

So when will employees come back? When they’re ready.

In the meantime, Hartenstein will do what it takes to open Lucca’s doors. In an industry that has faced so many hurdles, what’s one more?

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“We’re going to get people in some way, somehow,” he said. “We’re networking every way we can, and the word of mouth will happen.”

Marie Saavedra