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One way to ease Idaho’s labor shortage? Letting younger teens serve alcohol, retailers say

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Idaho retailers are hoping the Legislature will give the green light to lowering the age a teenager can serve or handle alcohol on the job from 19 years of age to 17 to help with the labor crisis facing businesses across the state. (Courtesy of Pixabay)

Change would lower legal age to serve and sell alcohol from 19 to 17

Idaho retailers are hoping the Legislature will give the green light to lowering the age a teenager can serve or handle alcohol on the job from 19 years of age to 17 to help with the labor crisis facing businesses across the state.

Pam Eaton, president and chief executive officer of the Idaho Retailers Association, presented Senate Bill 1308 to the Senate State Affairs Committee on Friday and said the change would immediately help restaurants and other establishments that serve alcohol. Under existing Idaho law, workers who are 19 and older can sell, serve, possess and dispense liquor, beer and wine as part of their employment. It does not permit alcohol to be sold or distributed to the worker.

“Between COVID(-19) and the labor shortage, our industry has been hit as hard, if not harder than most industries throughout Idaho,” Eaton said. “I’m bringing forward this (bill) because it’s something easy that can be done that could go a long way in helping these industries today with what they’re facing.”

Businesses across the state have reported struggles with hiring over the past year as Idaho’s unemployment rate continued to drop to historically low levels. Amid all of that, Eaton said teenagers are the one group of employees that businesses have been able to hire in recent months. The association had considered a proposal to lower the age to 16 but thought the Legislature might be more willing to accept 17 as the threshold.

Across U.S., only Maine has set alcoholic serving age at 17

According to the Alcohol Policy Information System, most states across the country set the age to serve beer, wine and liquor at 18, while others such as Alaska and Utah set the age at 21. If Idaho lowered the age to 17, it would join Maine as one of two states with that age limit. Some states require a supervisor to be present for the teenager to legally serve alcohol, but Idaho does not.

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said he had some reservations about the idea, and asked if the teenagers in question would be working under Idaho’s training wage, which is a minimum of $4.25 per hour that can be paid to employees under 20 years of age for the first 90 calendar days of employment.

Eaton said she doesn’t think any teenagers working in retail jobs across Idaho right now are making the training wage because of the shortage. Workers are needed and they are being paid well, she said.

Burgoyne also asked why the bill did not include a sunset clause that would revert the age back to 19 when the pandemic and labor shortages have receded. Eaton said she didn’t think it was necessary because the change would open more doors to teen workers.

“This is actually giving the opportunity for teenagers to access a greater variety of positions and actually help them work their way up in the business much quicker than they can today, because there are so many areas in our businesses where it’s just too difficult to have a teenager work in those positions because of our current laws,” Eaton said.

The committee voted to introduce the bill, and it could be heard in the coming days of the session.