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More states enacting laws to allow younger teens to serve alcohol, report finds

More and more states are quietly allowing underage workers to serve alcoholic beverages in bars and restaurants, a new report from the Economic Policy Institute shows.

The nonpartisan think tank found that since 2021, seven states — Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, New Mexico and Iowa — have relaxed legislation to allow teenagers, as young as 16 in some cases, serve alcohol. Its something the report says can be dangerous for younger workers.

"While lowering the age to serve alcohol may sound benign, it is not," the report, published Thursday, said. "It puts young people at risk of sexual harassment, underage drinking, and other harms."

In perhaps the most extreme proposed legislation, Wisconsin is looking to lower the alcohol service age from 18 to 14, the report found. Meanwhile, Idaho is hoping to lower its alcohol service age from 19 to 17.

The report alleged that the move to lower the alcohol service age is part of a larger scheme by the restaurant industry to employ cheaper labor and cut costs. In the nine states where the legislation has been either enacted or proposed, minimum wage and tipping for youth are already low, the Economic Policy Institute found.

The report cited the National Restaurant Association — a nationwide trade group which represents the interests of the restaurant industry — as also promoting legislation to see child labor laws eased.  

When it comes to restaurant jobs, the Economic Policy Institute says workers are at a higher risk of experiencing racial and gender discrimination, as well as sexual harassment and alcohol dependence. The industry employs the largest share of teens and young adults, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The report states that those who advocate for younger workers often use the argument that they will be valuable in supporting employers suffering with a pandemic-induced "labor shortage."

A possible solution to the issue, the report says, would be to have state lawmakers raise minimum wage and eliminate subminimum wage. 

In April, U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation to crack down on businesses that employ underage workers after the Labor Department reported seeing a 70% increase in the number of children illegally employed by companies over the past five years.

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