Politics & Government

Should SC make servers, bartenders undergo alcohol training? Some lawmakers say ‘yes’

How to tell when someone has had too much to drink.

One of the responsibilities that Jacob Alvarez, has as bartender at Publico, is to ensure that customers are not over served.
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One of the responsibilities that Jacob Alvarez, has as bartender at Publico, is to ensure that customers are not over served.

Bartenders and wait staff in restaurants play a pivotal role in just how intoxicated their patrons get before they leave and, for some, make the dangerous decision to drive.

It’s only fitting, then, that those who serve alcohol learn how to do so responsibly, according to a panel of state lawmakers.

On Tuesday, a panel of state senators approved a bill that would require those who serve alcohol to attend mandatory training and receive a state permit, sending the legislation to the full Senate for consideration. The training would teach servers and managers, in part, how to check IDs for age, recognize signs of intoxication and prevent customers from being over-served while also sharing with them methods for managing “problem drinkers,” according to the bill.

“They (servers and bartenders) are the gatekeeper between someone being served or over-served,” said chairman and bill sponsor state Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry.

Food and beverage industry staffers can undergo training and take certificate programs now, but those programs are only voluntary except for brewery workers and for staff working at a business that has been cited for alcohol violations.

Rankin’s bill, if it becomes law, would impose penalties of hundreds of dollars in fines and the suspension of a server permit for anyone who serves someone in violation of state alcohol regulations. A server who provides alcohol to someone underage or to the point of intoxication would be fined up to $50 and have their alcohol server certificate suspended for up to 15 days. A second offense would carry up to a $200 fine and up to a 30-day suspension. A third offense would carry up to a $350 fine and up to a six-month suspension.

Some of those penalties were less harsh in a previous version of the bill. For example, a first offense for violating the licensing rule would have carried up to a 30-day suspension of a bartender or wait staff’s server permit, had Rankin’s original bill advanced. However, senators voted to change the penalties, citing concerns the tougher sanctions might not pass the House.

Under the proposal, an alcohol training course would conclude with servers taking a test to receive an alcohol server certificate good for three years. Senators Tuesday also voted to lower the maximum cost for training to $35 from $50.

Some Columbia bar and restaurant owners say they support the proposal, noting they already provide training to their employees as a way to cut down on their insurance liability. The bill also has the backing of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

But Sen. Wes Climer, R-York, who was on the panel that advanced the bill Tuesday, questioned the need for a change in the law.

“If many are already doing it voluntarily, then why does the government have to require it?” he said of the training course. “I hesitate to embrace the notion that compelling people to sit before a protector and take a test is really going to have a measurable impact on their behavior in the real world.”

Climer also worried the cost of training would present a barrier to college students and young adults seeking their first job.

“Being a server at a restaurant is for many people the first rung on the economic ladder,” Climer said.

Seventeen states require alcohol server training, Rankin said. A 2017 study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests that training servers on responsible beverage service and follow-up enforcement and monitoring could help to reduce instances of impaired driving. That study also said about half of intoxicated drivers had their last drink at a licensed bar or restaurant.

The proposal was inspired in memory of Alli Cousins, a high-school senior who died in a one-car crash after she was served multiple drinks at an Upstate bar without being carded.

“I know that this will be a life-saving law,” Cousins’ mother, Linda Cousins of Greenville, said after the hearing. “I think the public now and the legislators now realize this is an opportunity for South Carolina to address our DUI crash rate and the problems of underage drinking and intoxication.”

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.