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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Southwest Washington lawmakers back bill to help bars fill job ranks

Measure would allow those 18-20 to work in certain positions

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 9, 2023, 7:18pm

State Rep. Kevin Waters, R-Stevenson, has introduced a bill he says will help reduce the worker shortage for many of the state’s bars and taverns. House Bill 1730 would allow individuals ages 18 to 20 to work in certain age-restricted businesses. The bill is co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Monica Stonier of Vancouver, from the 49th District, and Republican Rep. Stephanie McClintock, also of Vancouver, from the 18th District, among several others.

Under the proposed bill, younger workers would be allowed to work in bars and taverns but only in areas where the sale or service of alcohol does not occur, such as the kitchen, dishwashing area or supply area. They could work as a dishwasher, cook, chef, sanitation specialist or other kitchen staff, and must be supervised by someone age 21 or older at all times. If passed, the bill would go into effect immediately.

Waters testified in favor of the bill at a Thursday morning public hearing before the House Regulated Substances & Gaming Committee.

“This bill is near and dear to me because my family and I own a restaurant and we own a pub, but also I live in a very tourist area where we have bars and restaurants and we keep continuing to have a workforce shortage,” Waters told the committee.

Waters said he and others worked carefully to ensure the bill would protect workers ages 18 to 20 and ensure they would not be working in dining areas or in bars where alcohol is served.

“Frankly, some of the best times of my life were working in the back of a restaurant. As someone who can say it was some of the best years and work experience I ever got, I think this is a great bill,” Waters said.

Under current state law, minors are prohibited from working in 21-plus establishments, although exceptions are made for musicians, disc jockeys, sanitation workers and law enforcement or security.

During the pandemic, the state liquor and cannabis agency temporarily allowed those aged 18 to 20 to work the same “back-of-the-house” areas proposed in Waters’ bill. That exception expired on Sept. 30, 2022.

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Olympia bar owner Nicole Andres, who testified in support of the bill Thursday, said having workers aged 18 to 20 working in her kitchen during the pandemic saved her business.

“In the 22 years I’ve been in the business, they’re some of the most hardworking kids that I’ve met. They’re really appreciative, they do what they’re told and they kept my business alive,” Andres said.

After the special provision expired in September, she said she already had to close her business one day a week.

“Without them, I would be closed most days and just be open at night,” Andres said. “Every bar and restaurant is hiring and we’re all struggling.”

Riley Smith from the Washington Hospitality Association said the nationwide worker shortage has been particularly difficult for the hospitality industry. Smith also testified in support of the bill Thursday.

“Our members are constantly looking for people to hire,” he said.

Riley said the bill would bring age 21-plus establishments in line with other family-friendly establishments that also serve alcohol and would be a win-win for employers and workers.

The bill could face challenges getting passed by the committee. Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland, said the legislation seemed to contradict the committee’s previous messaging.

“I’m having a hard time reconciling one day we’re in committee and talking about youth having access to substances and we’re all over it, like, we have to stop this. Then on the next day we’re saying they can work in the back of where they’re serving alcohol,” Morgan said.

Morgan also said there are already adults who could fill these positions.

However, Waters said having those ages 18 to 20 work in “back-of-the-house” jobs has already been proven to work in restaurants serving alcohol, as long as there is adult supervision. He said HB 1730 would simply extend the same hiring ability to bars and taverns and would require the same kind of supervision.

House Bill 1730 is scheduled for an executive session and possible vote by the committee on Feb. 16.

To watch the full public hearing, go to https://bit.ly/3x9SCYP.

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