LINCOLN — Tracy Graber had hoped lawmakers would consider increasing the minimum age to serve alcohol in Nebraska from 19 to 21, to mirror the legal drinking age.
Instead, a proposal in the Nebraska Legislature would drop the age to 16, so long as the server takes state-approved training.
Graber’s 18-year-old son, Jacob Dickmeyer, died in a crash after being served drinks at a sports bar by a 20-year-old waitress and friend. Graber doesn’t want others to suffer the pain her family has endured.
The Valley woman believes the measure would put more young people in a bad position and set them up to succumb to peer pressure.
“I’m thinking if the age was even lower, that would just increase the susceptibility of situations like that happening,” she said.
But the bill’s sponsor argues that the measure provides safeguards while addressing staffing problems that businesses in rural Nebraska face.
The measure wouldn’t require people younger than 19 to handle alcohol, or require businesses to allow people who are 16 to serve it, said State Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill. The bill would, however, let establishments decide to employ 16-year-old certified servers.
“If you have someone under the age of 19, if they’ve taken that mandatory server training and that establishment feels comfortable, they should have that opportunity,” he said.
Current state law says people who serve alcohol must be at least 19. A server is not required by statute to take a training course, though cities such as Lincoln and Grand Island require such courses for servers, according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.
Past efforts to require training for servers across the state, regardless of age, have gotten icy responses from state lawmakers.
Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha proposed a bill in 2013 that would have mandated that all servers, wait staff, clerks and security personnel at liquor establishments have training to prevent them from selling alcohol to minors and intoxicated customers.
Though that measure was indefinitely postponed, the state liquor commission has developed training on how to check identification and how to recognize the signs of intoxication, among other topics. The course is at least four hours and can be taken online.
Nationally, age 18 is the most common minimum age to sell and serve alcohol. Maine has the lowest minimum age, 17, for servers at locations where alcohol is consumed, such as a bar, according to 2015 data collected by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. California, Georgia, Louisiana and Virginia have no minimum age for selling alcohol at off-premise locations such as grocery stores, the data show.
Another part of Legislative Bill 1105, the alcohol omnibus bill, would allow 16-year-old employees to ring up tickets that include alcohol as long as the young person didn’t handle the alcohol. Those employees would not have to take the training that would be required of young employees who serve alcohol.
A table that ordered a pizza and a pitcher of beer, for example, could pay at a counter staffed by someone who was 16, and that young person could finalize the sale.
Gretna Sen. John Murante, who is the CEO of Big Fred’s Pizza, said reducing the age to finalize a sale would address a problem he runs into daily.
About 30 percent of his employees are under age 19, and they’re relegated to working behind the front counter, hosting and working carryout.
“It’s a shame that they can’t hold the position which usually results in higher pay,” he said.
But he’s cautious about reducing the age to serve, saying it’s a significant responsibility to check identification and make sure people aren’t over-served.
“Before I would put someone under the age of 19 in that position,” he said, “I would need to be absolutely certain that they were trained and capable of making those tough decisions.”
The state liquor commission supports allowing young people to finalize a sale. Hobert Rupe, the commission’s executive director, said allowing young people to complete a transaction when they’ve not handled the alcohol makes sense. The commission, however, opposes the part of the bill that would lower the server age, he said.
So does Nicole Carritt, executive director of Project Extra Mile, who said the proposal would put kids in a position to serve and sell to other kids.
“Alcohol is a regulated product because it has the potential to do great harm if not sold responsibly,” Carritt said. “The state shouldn’t put that kind of burden and liability on those who simply aren’t prepared for it.”
Larson emphasized that the measure wouldn’t require a business to allow a 16-year-old employee to serve alcohol, but businesses that choose to do so would need to make the decision carefully, he said.
“I would encourage all businesses to make that decision responsibly and understand who they’re hiring,” he said.
That’s little solace to Graber, who believes the Waterloo establishment involved in her son’s case “somehow felt they were not responsible for most of what transpired that night.”
Dickmeyer crashed on West Dodge Road in 2012 after drinking at the Fire Barn Sports Bar & Grill in Waterloo.
Amanda Heiman, then 20, the waitress who served Dickmeyer and his underage friend, was sentenced to two years of probation after being convicted of procuring alcohol for a minor that resulted in the minor’s death. The sports bar received a 35-day suspension of its liquor license by the liquor commission.
Graber said Dickmeyer, who would be 21 now, didn’t know his limits that night, and Heiman, who had a crush on Dickmeyer, didn’t recognize that.
Graber plans to tell her story today during a hearing on LB 1105 before the Legislature’s General Affairs Committee, of which Larson is chairman.
“Anything that could’ve gone wrong that night did,” she said. “To put that into a 16-year-old’s hands to navigate when enough is enough, when they themselves don’t have any drinking experiences, it’s too much.”
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