Southwest Washington lawmakers back bill to help bars fill vacancies

Shari Phiel / The Colombian

State Rep. Kevin Waters, R-Stevenson, has introduced a bill that he says will help alleviate labor shortages in many of the state’s bars and taverns. House Bill 1730 would allow people aged 18 to 20 to work in certain age-restricted companies. Co-sponsors of the bill include Democratic Rep. Monica Stonier of Vancouver from the 49th District and Republican Rep. Stephanie McClintock of the 18th District, also from Vancouver.

Under the proposed legislation, younger workers would be allowed to work in bars and pubs, but only in areas where there is no alcohol sale or serving, such as restaurants. B. in the kitchen, in the sink area or in the supply area. They may work as a dishwasher, chef, cook, sanitation worker or other kitchen staff and must be supervised at all times by someone over the age of 21. If passed, the law would go into effect immediately.

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

“This bill is very close to my heart because my family and I own a restaurant and a pub, but I also live in a very touristy area where we have bars and restaurants and we continue to have a labor shortage,” Waters told the committee.

Waters said he and others have worked diligently to ensure the bill protects workers aged 18 to 20 and ensures they don’t work in dining areas or in bars where alcohol is served.

“Honestly, some of the best times of my life have been working in the back of a restaurant. As someone who can say it’s been some of the best years and work experience I’ve had, I think this is a great bill,” Waters said.

Under current state law, minors are barred from working in establishments over the age of 21, although exceptions are made for musicians, disc jockeys, plumbing workers, and law enforcement or security guards.

During the pandemic, the state Liquor and Cannabis Administration temporarily allowed people ages 18 to 20 to work in the same “back-of-the-house” areas proposed in the Waters bill. This exemption expired on September 30, 2022.

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

“In the 22 years I’ve been in business, they are some of the hardest working kids I’ve ever met. They’re really grateful, they’re doing as they’re told and they’ve kept my business alive,” Andres said.

After the special regulation expired in September, she had to close her shop one day a week.

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

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

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

Riley said the bill would align 21+ establishments with other family-friendly establishments that also serve alcohol and would be a win-win for employers and employees.

The bill could face challenges if passed by committee. Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland, said the legislation appears to contradict the committee’s earlier message.

“I’m having a hard time reconciling one day in committee and talking about youth access to substances and we’re all about how we need to stop that. Then the next day we say they can work in the background serving alcohol,” Morgan said.

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

However, Waters said that it has already been proven that having 18-20 year olds working in “back-of-the-house” jobs works in restaurants that serve alcohol, as long as there is adult supervision gives. He said HB 1730 would simply extend the same setting options to bars and taverns and require the same type of surveillance.

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


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