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2019 brings a rash of new laws affecting restaurants

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Restaurateurs are entering 2019 with a host of new responsibilities and obligations, courtesy of state and municipal laws passed months or even years ago. The measures range from requiring the appointment of at least one woman to a public company’s board of directors (currently, just in California), to recalibrating when a customer should be denied a next drink (Utah), to giving crew members a raise (20 states, from Alaska to Washington). Here’s a quick review of new mandates that took effect this week.

A lower standard for intoxication

Restaurants that sell alcoholic beverages in Utah may have to adjust their server training practices if they intend to protect patrons and themselves from a new, more stringent definition of driving while impaired. The state is the first in the nation to lower the legal standard for drunk driving to a blood alcohol content (BAC) exceeding 0.05%, or where experts say adults typically would be if they had more than one beer, glass of wine or mixed drink. That threshold compares with the 0.08% level that’s on the books virtually everywhere else,  and is half the standard in effect three decades ago of 0.10%.

Under the new standard, restaurants could be held liable for selling that second drink to a patron who then gets in his or her car and crashes. Utah has always been uneasy about the sale of alcohol, a reflection of its large Mormon population (the new standard actually took effect Dec. 30 to dampen New Year’s Eve consumption). But operators everywhere should heed what happens in the state; it was the first to drop the standard for impairment to a BAC of 0.8% some 20 years ago. 

New rules for selling nonalcoholic beverages

Restaurants in a number of jurisdictions, including the whole state of California, are now obligated to change their procedures for selling and serving soft drinks. Quick-service places are now forbidden in the Golden State and cities such as Baltimore from automatically bundling soda into their kids meals. The default choices have to be beverages with no sweeteners added, such as water or milk. The only way a child can get a sugary soda is if a parent specifically requests it. The measure is intended to combat childhood obesity by no longer permitting high calorie beverages to be the automatic accompaniment to burgers or chicken nuggets. However, the ban extends to no-calorie diet beverages in some areas.

Because of 2018’s flurry of anti-straw laws, youngsters and adults alike may have to change the way they consume beverages. Throughout California, for instance, full-service restaurants are now forbidden to provide a plastic straw with any beverage unless one is requested. In a number of other jurisdictions, quick-service and full-service establishments are prohibited from providing any sort of straw except upon request. The aim is to cut down the number of plastic straws that end up in the oceans, where they can pose a danger to marine life.

California’s new breastfeeding rules

With the birth of the #MeToo movement, a number of state legislatures passed laws aimed at protecting women from harassment, sexual or otherwise. One of the lesser-noticed and unusual measures took effect this week in California. Restaurateurs and other employers there are now required to “make reasonable efforts” to provide mothers on their payrolls with a nicer place than a bathroom stall to breastfeed infants. The law requires the new facilities to be clean and comfortable. 

No more polystyrene containers in NYC

After five years of legal wrangling, a ban on polystyrene takeout containers and coffee cups took effect Jan. 1 in New York City, the source of such now-industrywide requirements as menu labeling and elimination of trans fats. The industry had blocked adoption by challenging the city’s contention that Styrofoam can’t be recycled feasibly. But a judge ruled in June that the research indicates otherwise, clearing the way for the 2013 law to take effect. However, fines will not be levied until July 1. 

Female directors required in California

Public restaurant companies based in California will have until Jan. 1, 2020, to include at least one woman on their boards of directors, the result of a controversial law that is nonetheless expected to serve as a model for other jurisdictions looking to promote gender equality in the corporate world. The requirements rise next year to two female directors for public companies with at least five seats on their boards, and to three women for companies with a board consisting of six or more people. 

Ex-Gov. Jerry Brown signed the measure into law but acknowledged that it could be overturned by a court or legislative repeal because of concerns the state government is overreaching by butting into boardroom activities. A quick check of restaurant companies headquartered in California found most already have a woman on their board, but many will have to appoint another female director to meet the 2021 requirement. 

Minimum wage hikes

On Jan. 1, Massachusetts and Washington became the first states in the nation to mandate a wage of at least $12 an hour from all employers, and five others (Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine and New York) raised their pay floors to at least $11.  

Those levels were handily eclipsed by a number of municipalities.  Seattle’s minimum wage is now the highest in the nation ($16 for companies employing at least 500 people, $12 in straight wages and $3 in healthcare contributions or tips for everyone else), though New York  is not far behind ($15 for businesses employing at least 11 people, $13.50 for smaller employers). Portland, Ore., will join that group when state law raises the city’s pay floor to $12.50 an hour. Workers elsewhere in smaller urban and suburban regions will get a bump in pay to $11.25 an hour, while workers in rural areas will command at least $11.

A look at the increases taking effect this week underscores how statewide minimum wages are being replace by multitiered requirements that reflect the higher cost of living within nonrural areas of the respective state. 

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