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MI: Legislation would allow 17-year-olds to serve alcohol in bars, restaurants

MI: Legislation would allow 17-year-olds to serve alcohol in bars, restaurants

The Petoskey News-Review
By Paul Welitzkin
December 20, 2021

GAYLORD — The Michigan House of Representatives has approved legislation to lower the age for serving or selling alcohol in taverns and restaurants from 18 to 17.

The bill, which now moves on to the Senate for consideration, maintains a legal drinking age of 21. 

When bars and restaurants were forced to close or limit capacity during the pandemic, it pushed many employees who worked in hospitality to more stable industries, said Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association.

“Although bars and restaurants don’t currently have any capacity restrictions, many are still operating at 40-60% because replacing a large portion of the industry’s workforce has been tough. Allowing 17-year-olds, who are currently able to remove alcohol from tables and stock coolers, to be able to serve, would help resolve the worker shortage,” he said.

State Rep. Ken Borton, (R., Gaylord) voted for the bill.

“Many small businesses are having a hard time finding workers. Allowing 17-year-olds to sell alcohol will give restaurants, stores and other businesses more options amid staffing shortages,” said Borton.

State Rep. John Damoose, (R., Harbor Springs) also backed the measure.

“Retailers continue facing challenges hiring enough workers, especially for seasonal staffing needs. Allowing responsible youth employees to do more tasks on their own can provide more opportunities for both high school students and retailers in filling open positions,” said Amy Drumm, senior vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Retailers Association.

Not everyone is enamored with the bill. The Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC) is opposed to the change.

“The MLCC has health and safety concerns over reducing the minimum age for a person to sell and serve alcohol to 17. Immaturity and peer pressure may contribute to a younger employee selling or serving other minors or intoxicated persons,” the commission told a House committee.

Are 17-year-olds mature and responsible enough to handle the responsibility of serving alcohol?

“Some 17-year-olds are mature enough to responsibly handle and serve alcohol and some aren’t. The same can be said for 30-year-olds. At the end of the day, it comes down to the individual, and the business owner must make that choice,” said Ellis.

Those who serve alcohol must also make judgments on the ability of the customer to responsibly consume the beverages. Can a 17-year-old handle that responsibility?

“Again, it comes down to the individual. Keep in mind, an establishment’s liquor license is on the line if mistakes are made. An owner isn’t going to risk losing that if they don’t think someone can handle the job safely and responsibly,” added Ellis.

Mike Naturkas, who with his family operates The Beacon Bistro in Petoskey and The Paper Station Bistro and State Road Provisions in Harbor Springs, said he would hire the right 17-year-old for the job.

“At that age they tend to be eager to learn and interested in moving up to other jobs at the restaurants that make them money,” said Naturkas. “Our daughter started serving in our coffee shop at 11 years old, now mind you there was no liquor but she could see the financial boost serving lunch and dinners in one of our restaurants. At 17, she was serving at one of our restaurants but had to have the bartender deliver cocktails. Now at 18, she can come home from school breaks and make excellent money to save for her future. Moving the age limit down would allow younger folks to start making money to save for school, or just get a jump on a career in hospitality.”

Kat Steinbrecher, owner of Porter Haus and Mary’s Stein Haus in Gaylord, said “I’ve had very mature 16-year-olds I would trust serving alcohol and 30-year-olds I wouldn’t.”

“If a person is educated in (the) techniques of alcohol management, trained well as a server to be able to answer customer questions the same as they would with food sales and allergies, to me it wouldn’t matter their age,” she said. “Having started in the industry at 14 myself, I say if the kid is hungry enough with a good work ethic and hustle, let’s not hold them back.”

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, said the MLCC. Regionally, Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin allow 18-year-olds to sell and serve alcohol at on-premises licensed locations; Indiana and Ohio allow 19-year-olds.