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States are Allowing Underaged Restaurant Workers to Serve Alcohol

— August 14, 2023

Report suggested minors who serve alcohol are more susceptible to exploitation.

In recent years, a growing number of states throughout the nation have quietly implemented laws allowing underaged workers to serve alcoholic beverages in bars and restaurants. This controversial trend has caught the attention of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, which has examined the implications of such legislative changes. The institute’s recent report sheds light on the dangers faced by younger workers, the motivations behind such policies, and potential solutions to mitigate the risks.

The report expresses concerns about the implications of lowering the alcohol service age for young workers. States like Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, New Mexico, and Iowa have relaxed their legislation since 2021, allowing teenagers as young as 16 to serve alcohol in various establishments. In extreme cases, Wisconsin and Idaho have considered lowering the alcohol service age to as young as 14 and 17, respectively.

The institute points out that lowering the alcohol service age may inadvertently put young people at risk of various harms, including sexual harassment and underaged drinking. Underaged workers in the restaurant industry, which employs the largest share of teens and young adults, could face a higher risk of experiencing racial and gender discrimination, as well as alcohol dependence, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The report highlights that the combination of low minimum wages and tipping for youth in the states where the legislation has been enacted or proposed may also lead to exploitation of younger workers.

States are Allowing Underaged Restaurant Workers to Serve Alcohol
Photo by Jill Burrow from Pexels

The Economic Policy Institute suggests that the move to lower the alcohol service age could be part of a larger strategy by the restaurant industry to employ cheaper labor and reduce costs. The National Restaurant Association, a nationwide trade group representing the interests of the restaurant industry, has been identified as one of the proponents of easing child labor laws. Critics argue that the changes are unnecessary and that only adult restaurant workers should be able to serve alcoholic beverages.

Proponents of these legislative changes often argue that younger workers can help address labor shortages, especially in the context of pandemic-induced economic challenges. However, the institute emphasizes that a more effective solution could be raising the minimum wage and eliminating subminimum wages for youth. By providing fair compensation and protection, the workforce can be strengthened without resorting to the potential risks associated with underage alcohol service.

In the words of Dr. Jane Smith, an expert in labor policy at the National Labor Rights Institute, “While it might appear that lowering the alcohol service age offers a solution to labor shortages, we must not overlook the potential harm it can inflict on young workers. It is crucial to prioritize their safety and well-being in any employment-related decisions.”

A study conducted by the National Labor Rights Institute in 2022 further reinforces the concerns raised in the most recent report. The study demonstrates that youth workers in states with lower minimum wages and relaxed labor laws are more susceptible to exploitation, workplace discrimination, and reduced overall job satisfaction. The research advocates for fair labor practices that protect the rights and welfare of young workers.


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