Few Wisconsin Communities Have Sober Bartender Laws

March 27, 2013

The eastern Wisconsin city of Neenah is considering an ordinance that would require bartenders to show up for work sober – and ban them from drinking on the job.

The ordinance would let police hold bartenders accountable if they fail to maintain enough control over their patrons because they’re serving while intoxicated, Police Chief Kevin Wilkinson said. A City Council committee is scheduled to consider the ordinance Tuesday and decide whether to send it to the full council.

bartender pouring drinkFew such ordinances are in place nationwide. Where such ordinances do exist, they result in few citations, Gannett Wisconsin Media reported this weekend. At least three Wisconsin communities regulate drinking by bartenders – Jackson, La Crosse and Madison. But the newspapers found that enforcement is spotty.

Neenah tavern owner Rick Eiting said he doesn’t want his bartenders to drink on the job, but doesn’t want police to monitor their conduct either.

“I don’t think the city should be regulating me on what I do,” said Eiting, owner of the ReUnion Station. “If they do this, what’s going to be my next regulation? Will it be the color of toilet paper I use in the bathroom?”

Neenah’s proposed ordinance would prohibit bartenders from serving if they have a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.04 percent or more, half the legal limit for driving. They could not drink on duty. Violations could bring a fine of $90 to $300.

“If we have a problem and we go to a bar where a bartender is intoxicated, we are probably going there because a fight broke out,” Wilkinson said. “Or we are going there because a guy is passed out outside the building because he was over-served.”

“It’s not the direct actions of the bartender that’s going to call us to that location; it’s going to be the secondary impact of having the person who is not exerting enough control that gets us there.”

Jackson, a village of 6,700 with three taverns in Washington County, enacted an ordinance in 2008 that prohibits bartenders from being intoxicated. Just one citation has been written, Police Chief Jed Dolnick said.

La Crosse, a city of about 51,000, prohibits bartenders from drinking on the job or serving while intoxicated. Since 2009, police there have issued two citations to bartenders for drinking at work and four to bartenders who were drunk on the job, Police Lt. Patrick Hogan said.

Madison has an ordinance prohibiting bartenders from being intoxicated.

“It’s basically been left up to the bars,” Police Lt. David McCaw acknowledged. “There are some bar (owners) who say, ‘No, I can’t have people drinking on duty.’ There are other bars that have a different philosophy.”

David Craver, president of the National Bartenders Association, said the issue is about personal responsibility and it’s not necessary to pinpoint any particular profession.

“If you are trusted in a position at a bar with taking people’s money, you are going to have to maintain some level of sobriety to be able to do it well,” he said. “You know what that is, and if you don’t, you stand a good chance of being fired.”

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