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Fox in the Hen House

When servers and bartenders are busted for DWI

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By 12:30am on a summer evening, the diligent dishwashers had concluded their tasks in an upscale Charlotte restaurant and bade adios to some of the remaining employees. Sitting at the bar, a thirtysomething, hard-drawn server pours herself another drink and downs it. Soon she walks to another bar where many of her co-workers and acquaintances from other restaurants and bars gather. It's 2am: Last call is issued. The woman throws back her last drink and walks to her car. Going home, her driving is erratic, and around 2:30am a Charlotte Mecklenburg police officer stops her and arrests her on charges of DWI. She is taken to jail and has her fingerprints and a photograph taken.

This woman, a career server, was later convicted and her driver's license revoked. But on the same day she was arrested, the woman was back at work serving alcohol, and judging whether some of her customers were having too much to drink.

There's something wrong here. Can and should citizens feel safe if restaurants and bars will not draw the line with their own employees?

Ultimately, the ethically challenged server profiled above was fired (not for the DWI), but she was hired at another restaurant. Did her current employer ask about any drinking-related offenses before hiring her? A spokeswoman for the publicly-traded restaurant would not comment. However, the truth is, few restaurants in Charlotte ask potential employees -- specifically those who would serve alcohol -- about drunk driving offenses. DWI is not a felony and the state does not require restaurants and bars to ask the question.

Life in the hospitality business has a price. Those attracted to it are often people who prefer unconventional lifestyles, late hours and the adrenaline rush of a crowded restaurant. "It's a high," one sous chef told me. "There's nothing like that kind of rush." But at the end of the night, drinking and drugs can be quick fixes to bring the high down or keep the party going. The unfortunate part is that many of these people then get behind the wheel and drive home, endangering the lives of others. It's the drinking and driving that is the problem -- not having the ability to judge for oneself and then going back to work to make those same judgments about whether have had too much to be served.

Demonstrating a lapse of judgment and then sleeping it off is one thing. Demonstrating a daily occurrence of defective judgment by driving drunk constitutes an alcohol problem.

But just how widespread are DWI convictions in the hospitality industry? Records of employment are not kept by the CMPD. I asked students in several classes at Johnson Wales University, many of whom hold jobs as servers, if they knew of any servers or bartenders who had been convicted of DWIs. Hands flew up. Stories were eagerly told. Police photos of those arrested for DWI (available online) were checked.

One downtown bartender told me of a recent sobriety checkpoint cops set up down the street from the bar where she worked. She said the police left long before the restaurant employees did. In the interim, while police were checking the bars' customers for sobriety, many of the bar employees drank -- and then drove home. The bartender I talked to has been pulled over twice, she said, but not ticketed or charged with DWI. What would happen if she were charged with DWI and her manager found out?

"He sometimes drinks with us," she replied. What about his manager? "We'd probably be fired -- not for the drinking and driving, but for drinking after hours at his bar."

If the state is trying to protect the public from drunk drivers by requiring bartenders and servers to recognize the signs of being under the influence, shouldn't the people pouring and serving drinks be required to recognize the same signs in themselves?

Cheryl Jones, chair of the Metrolina Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), believes they should. She said MADD had tried to get the state Alcoholic Beverage Control commission to begin a program that would issue licenses for alcohol servers and bartenders.

Jones, who served on a fact-finding board to study DWIs in North Carolina, said classes for people up for jobs in which they would serve alcohol -- just like those for people learning to drive a motorcycle -- could be offered at the local community college. "Then, if licensees are caught serving underage drinkers or charged with a DWI, that license could be revoked or they wouldn't be allowed to sell alcohol for a specified period of time," Jones says.

Or perhaps they would be required take a retraining class. Or pay a steeper fee to become relicensed.

And why shouldn't alcohol servers be licensed -- just the same as the people who cut your hair and paint your nails are?

One of the only programs for alcohol servers in North Carolina is the Responsible Alcohol Seller Program (RASP), a two-hour voluntary course offered throughout the state. Danny Sellers, director of education and training at the North Carolina ABC Commission, calls the language in current laws "interesting."

"Right now, what is considered an alcoholic beverage offense is selling [alcohol] to minors or selling to intoxicated people," he says. "Business owners are treated like parents -- the manager can be charged and then the owner can be charged with failure to manage." Asked if North Carolina had considered a law requiring mandatory server training, he says, "That would have to go though the legislature. There are 19,000 ABC establishments in the state -- to license that many people, that's a full-time job."

A full-time job that could potentially save lives.

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