Liquor sellers push to lower alcohol serving age in Michigan to 17

·4 min read
A bill in the Michigan Legislature would would lower the age for serving or selling alcohol from 18 to 17 in an attempt to increase the pool of people who would work as bartenders and servers.
A bill in the Michigan Legislature would would lower the age for serving or selling alcohol from 18 to 17 in an attempt to increase the pool of people who would work as bartenders and servers.

LANSING — As restaurants and bars struggle for staff, the pool of bartenders, servers and liquor sellers could increase with an effort to lower the minimum age requirement to sell and serve alcohol.

The proposed change would lower the age for serving or selling alcohol from 18 to 17, while the legal age for drinking would remain 21.

Even before the pandemic began, Northern Michigan needed service workers. But the pandemic made that need the No. 1 issue for bars and restaurants, said Scott Ellis, the executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association.

In the Lansing area alone, between 50% and 60% of the association’s members are operating at a lesser capacity because they can’t get workers, Ellis said.

Lots of restaurants have workers who started when they were 15 or 16, are mature and know the industry, Ellis said. At 17, these workers could wait tables and deliver drinks.

The Michigan Association of Retailers supports the bill sponsored by Rep. Michele Hoitenga, R-Manton. It passed the House 64-39 on Dec. 7 and was referred to the Senate Committee on Regulatory Reform.

While small grocers may have upstanding 17-year-old employees who want to be cashiers, it’s difficult to put them in those positions because they can’t sell alcohol, said Amy Drumm, the senior vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Retailers Association.

The change would make it easier for retailers to give young workers an opportunity to work in cashier positions without needing to call somebody older to make a sale, Drumm said.

Not everyone agrees with the proposed move.

Some groups argue that 17-year-olds are not responsible enough to sell and serve liquor.

Research suggests that younger sellers are more likely to sell to underage and intoxicated patrons, said Mike Tobias, the executive director of Michigan Alcohol Policy Promoting Health and Safety, a volunteer grassroots organization based in Perry.

“We’ve done some server training in the past, and some folks talked about it being sometimes a little difficult to say no to an angry customer. So I just think it might be even harder for somebody younger,” Tobias said.

The Liquor Control Commission also opposes the change, concerned that allowing 17-year-olds to sell and serve alcohol could create long-term safety concerns.

In a statement in opposition to the bill, the commission noted Michigan’s alcohol serving requirements are in line with the majority of other states.

Maine is the only state to allow 17-year-olds to sell and serve alcohol for on-premise consumption at restaurants, bars and tasting rooms, the commission noted. Eighteen other states allow people under 18 to sell alcohol at grocery stores, convenience stores and liquor stores.

Several other states that allow people under 21 to sell and serve alcohol require bartenders to be at least 21, according to the bill’s legislative analysis.

Supporters argue the regulations currently in place would prevent illegal sales.

“Liquor licenses are very expensive, and once you have one nobody wants to lose it,” said. Rep. Roger Hauck, R-Mount Pleasant, who voted in favor of the bill.

Licensees and owners are ultimately responsible for anything that happens on a licensed premise, so they’re going to be smart about the maturity of employees when giving them that responsibility, Ellis said.

There are also training programs that teach servers about the laws and the effects of alcohol, which the association would encourage for young servers, Ellis said.

Employers would also have to comply with the Youth Employment Standards Act that limits the number of hours minors can work.

It prevents minors 16 and older from working in areas of business where alcoholic beverages are produced, sold at retail or sold for consumption at an establishments where food is less than 50% of its total earnings.

While measures like compliance checks prevent sales to minors, they have to be consistent, Tobias said.

Michigan Alcohol Policy Promoting Health and Safety is empathetic to the worker shortage, but lowering the seller’s age to 17 is not a good solution, Tobias said.

“Everything’s looked at through an economic lens, and I know that’s important, but I feel like people lose sight of the public health impacts,” Tobias said.

This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegram: Liquor sellers push to lower alcohol serving age in Michigan to 17