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As some states lower the age to serve alcohol in restaurants, will teens be put at risk?

Ali Budner Jul 27, 2023
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Since 2021, seven states have passed laws to lower the minimum age for serving alcohol in restaurants. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

As some states lower the age to serve alcohol in restaurants, will teens be put at risk?

Ali Budner Jul 27, 2023
Heard on:
Since 2021, seven states have passed laws to lower the minimum age for serving alcohol in restaurants. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

You have to be 21 to drink alcohol in the U.S., but the minimum age for serving it depends on the state.

A growing number of states have reduced the age requirement for serving alcohol in restaurants. That could help the food service industry hire more workers in a tight labor market. But some advocates are concerned that serving alcohol could make younger teens more vulnerable to harassment and exploitation.

Since 2021, seven states have passed laws to lower the minimum age for serving alcohol in restaurants. Some of those laws decrease the threshold to 16, 17 or 18. There’s now a proposal in Wisconsin to lower the age all the way to 14. So where is this coming from?

“The restaurant industry was hit pretty hard during the pandemic,” said Nina Mast, an analyst at the liberal Economic Policy Institute. She recently authored a report about states lowering age limits for alcohol service positions.

“And employers are really looking for ways to fill these positions in the industry with younger workers and workers they can pay lower wages,” she said.

Mast means teens. Her organization has tracked ways the food service industry has already violated child labor laws — from overly long hours to hazardous working conditions. Millions of young people are already working in the industry.

“When you start serving alcohol to customers, you know, who can be difficult and unpredictable, I really think you kind of do want somebody who has more work experience and maturity to handle difficult situations with inebriated customers,” said Reid Maki with the Child Labor Coalition.

Maki explained that his specific concerns about younger teens serving alcohol are that they may be more likely to consume alcohol themselves and may become more vulnerable to sexual harassment.

“I don’t think it makes sense to allow younger teens to be thrust into that situation,” he said.

But some in the restaurant industry see it a little differently.

“We think that this is going to open doors for teens,” said Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association.

Her organization supported the recently enacted state law that lowers the alcohol service age from 18 to 16. Before the change, Dunker said 16- and 17-year-olds didn’t have a lot of options for jobs at restaurants.

“We were really limiting the earning potential of an ambitious teenager that was interested in moving into a serving role and allowing them that opportunity,” she said.

Plus, Dunker said, the Iowa law has plenty of guardrails in place to protect teens: The lowered age limit only applies to alcohol service in restaurants, not bars; two adults must be within eyesight of the minor serving alcohol at all times; and minors have to get their parents’ consent before taking the job.

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