In the small town of Freedom, Wisconsin, Buzz’s Pub and Grill – a local sports bar whose logo features frothing beer mugs in the colors of the American flag – has been short-staffed since the pandemic. Jeff Baker, the owner, says he “could use one more bartender, and probably two more cooks”. He hasn’t found takers in over a year of running “help wanted” ads, so he’s made do by working extra shifts in the kitchen and paring back the menu.
Baker could soon get more job applicants thanks to a new proposal that would lower Wisconsin’s minimum age for alcohol service to just 14 years old. It would “absolutely” be a welcome change if children applied, he says. “Not as many kids work as much as they used to. Back in our day, more kids were needed, and more parents made their kids work.”
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Wisconsin is just one of a growing number of states where predominantly Republican lawmakers are making quiet moves to roll back the alcohol service age, so that kids who can’t legally buy alcohol – or in Wisconsin’s case, even drive a car – would be allowed to serve hard drinks to customers at bars and restaurants. In addition to alleviating the labor shortage, lawmakers behind the bills argue letting kids serve alcohol would give them valuable work experience.
That’s left some opponents of the bills at a loss for words. “It’s bizarre. I can’t believe that we’re even having this conversation,” says Ryan Clancy, a Democratic state legislator who represents parts of Milwaukee, where he also owns an entertainment center that serves alcohol. He’s seen how drunk customers can harass workers, and “the idea that we would expose Wisconsin’s children to harassment through this is just unconscionable. It’s not only an erosion of labor, but our willingness to protect our kids.”
Until recently, every US state required a worker serving alcohol in a bar or restaurant to be at least 18 to 21. These minimums in part reflect the legacy of the movement to end child labor in the 20th century, says Betsy Wood, a historian of child labor at Bard Early College.
But according to a report published last week by the Economic Policy Institute, at least seven states have enacted laws to lower their alcohol service age since 2021, including West Virginia and Iowa, which lowered the minimum age to 16, and Michigan, which lowered it to 17. The bills are backed by restaurant lobbying groups as part of a broader effort to loosen child labor laws “to cut labor costs and deregulate employment”, the report writes – at a time when child labor violations are on the rise across the country.
In recent years, investigations have found hundreds of children working in jobs that are officially classified as hazardous under federal labor law, from auto parts factories in Alabama to meatpacking plants in Nebraska and Minnesota. But there are no explicit federal prohibitions on children working in bars, despite the dangers there.
Most bartenders and restaurant servers in the US are female, and research has found that the vast majority of female servers have experienced on-the-job sexual harassment, at rates higher than nearly any other industry. The danger is even higher when workers aren’t paid a living wage.
A 2014 study by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a labor advocacy organization, found that servers experience significantly more sexual harassment in states where they can be legally paid less than the minimum wage and expected to make up the difference with tips – “creating an environment in which a majority female workforce must please and curry favor with customers to learn a living”, the report said. “Depending on customers’ tips for wages discourages workers who might otherwise stand up for their rights and report unwanted sexual behaviors.”
These sub-minimum wages are legal in every state that’s now lowering its alcohol service age: in Iowa, the so-called tipped minimum wage is $4.35 an hour. In Michigan, it’s $3.84, and in Wisconsin, it’s just $2.33.
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Throw teenage girls into that mix, and the risk for abuse becomes clear, says Wood, the child labor historian. “The double whammy of sub-minimum wages and sexual harassment is already challenging for adults to navigate, much less children who are uniquely vulnerable.”
But the bills’ supporters say there’s nothing to worry about. Each proposed bill is different, some say children can only serve drinks but not make them, some say they may only do so at venues that also serve food and others demand they be supervised by someone over 18.
One Wisconsin legislator trying to lower the alcohol service age to 14 is Chanz Green, a Republican who owns a tavern himself and denies that his bill is rolling back child labor laws. In Wisconsin’s proposal, “the drinks are still being made by a licensed bartender. And there is still the responsibility of the bartender and the employer to supervise their employees,” he told the Guardian in an email. “[The bill] would just allow servers, who are already working in a restaurant capacity, to bring alcoholic beverages to the table they are serving.”
Baker, the Buzz’s Pub and Grill owner, says “it’s up to me as a business owner to make sure I’m enforcing the rules,” and believes the bill wouldn’t expose kids to any situations they wouldn’t otherwise be in. “I’m a firm believer that if kids want to drink alcohol, they’re going to get a hold of it,” he says.
In Michigan, Scott Ellis, the executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, the lobbying group that helped pass the state’s new alcohol service age law, says: “Since the bill became law, we have not heard of any issues from our members or from other alcohol-related groups or organizations that would track cases of abuse or exploitation.”
The Iowa Republican state representative Shannon Lundgren, who owns Iowa’s Trackside Bar and Grill, says her daughters grew up working with her in the restaurant, and that lowering the alcohol service age would allow “minor family members to play a more active role” in Iowa’s family-run businesses. She disputes the idea that teens could be put at special risk of sexual assault by serving alcohol. “The environment isn’t the crime … the person who sexually assaults a person has committed the crime,” she told the Guardian in an email.
Lundgren added that in Iowa’s proposed law any 16- or 17-year-old serving alcohol would have to get “parent-signed permission, with proper training and on-site supervision”, and would not be able to prepare drinks under the new law. “Prior to passing this law, same-aged minors could work in convenience or grocery stores and sell alcohol to legal-aged patrons. This is simply mirroring what is already being done in other industries, with additional guardrails.”
When it comes to bars, we’ve seen the data show over and over again that the presence of alcohol does create risk of sexual assault for all people working in that environment
But the Democratic state representative Megan Srinivas says those guardrails were actually added by Iowa’s outnumbered left flank, who negotiated additional amendments to try to protect the teen workers before voting against the final bill. Its original version did not require teenagers to be supervised while serving alcohol at all – with the amendments, they’ll have to be supervised by at least two adults. Democrats also added an amendment requiring any minor who gets a job serving alcohol to undergo “training on prevention and response to sexual harassment”.
“There’s a reason we’ve always said minors are at higher risk of assault in certain environments.” Srinivas says. “And that’s what [the new law is] opening the door to. When it comes to bars, we’ve seen the data show over and over again that the presence of alcohol does create risk of sexual assault for all people working in that environment.”
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And for a Republican legislature that’s passed bill after bill restricting LGBTQ+ rights, banning books, and targeting teachers and librarians over fears of “grooming”, it’s absurd that they would then send teenagers to serve alcohol in bars, Srinivas says. “This literally creates the perfect scenario for somebody to be groomed. It’s underage person working in a setting with alcohol, often under-supervised.”
According to the Economic Policy Institute, the driving force behind these bills are restaurant industry groups, like the National Restaurant Association and its state affiliates, “that benefit from child labor in the food and beverage and restaurant industries”. Their goal, the report argues, is to avoid raising wages and improving working conditions, and to fix a temporary problem – the labor shortage – “with permanent changes to labor laws that allow employers to replace adult workers with lower-paid youth in increasingly dangerous jobs”. (The National Restaurant Association did not respond to an emailed request for comment.)
Clancy, the Milwaukee state representative, sees the bills as a “weird game of one-upmanship in terms of how horrific the state Republicans can be”. But they also represent missed opportunities to do the things that could actually fix the labor shortage’s root causes.
“We could talk daycare; we could talk paid parental leave; we could talk about encouraging employers in a myriad of ways to hire folks that were recently incarcerated; we could stop incarcerating so many people,” he says. “Yet in 2023, they’re bringing back child labor. It is just maddening.”