One of the most difficult realities for Virginia restaurateurs over the past two years has been finding sufficient help. Stories abound of overwhelmed waiters, shorthanded kitchens and frustrated diners as food and beverage businesses struggle to find their footing amid a tight labor market in the post-pandemic landscape.

A bill recently introduced in the Virginia legislature could help alleviate this problem by removing an antiquated and needlessly restrictive state law that prohibits restaurants and bars with a liquor license from hiring employees with certain criminal records. In one stroke, Virginia lawmakers can unlock a larger pool of workers and help give more Virginians a second chance through stable employment.

Under current state law, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (ABC) can “suspend or revoke” a liquor license from a restaurant or bar if they “knowingly employ” any person who has been convicted of a “felony … or offense involving moral turpitude.”

These types of laws are often dubbed “moral character” clauses and can be found in many state codes. One issue with them is their inherent vagueness — after all, what constitutes a crime of “moral turpitude”? Sadly, such language has often been used to prohibit fully rehabilitated ex-prisoners from getting a job in their chosen profession.

As a result, criminal justice advocates have targeted these types of clauses for reform to allow formerly incarcerated or justice-involved individuals a greater ability to find employment, which is a well-known key indicator of recidivism. Research has also linked restrictive licensing and moral character laws with higher recidivism rates for this exact reason.

It also exacerbates employment shortages for businesses such as restaurants. Virginia ABC regulations are currently more narrowly tailored than the statutory language, purporting to only suspend or revoke liquor licenses for restaurants that employ individuals who have committed offenses related to controlled substances, alcohol or certain categories of theft or fraud.

Since the state law is written more broadly than the regulatory code, however, these regulations could be changed or altered to take on a more restrictive scope at any time, thereby placing even greater restrictions on the ability of restaurants to hire ex-offenders. The larger issue though is who should be deciding these questions in the first place: businesses themselves or the government?

As of now, the only recourse for restaurant owners who want to hire a rehabilitated ex-offender is to apply for a special dispensation from Virginia ABC, which then conducts an investigation via the Bureau of Law Enforcement before deciding whether the employee can be hired or not. This setup essentially makes Virginia ABC a sort of expungement court in which the agency decides “yay” or “nay” on whether individuals with certain criminal records can pursue employment at a restaurant.

Even if it seemed likely that ABC would grant a dispensation in a particular case, the very structure of the system disincentives restaurateurs from hiring those with records given the needless hurdles and risk of a potential license suspension.

Placing a government agency in this type of role in any situation should create unease. But an agency like ABC whose primary task — and reason for existence — is to regulate alcoholic beverages in the commonwealth is especially unequipped to assess the employment decisions of private businesses.

Restaurant owners themselves are the most appropriate people to decide who they should hire. No restaurateur wants to hire someone who will hurt their business, and they remain a better judge of whether an individual is a good fit rather than an alcohol regulator sitting in a government office.

Healthy societies should both ensure neighborhood businesses have the workforce they need to thrive and allow citizens looking to rehabilitate their lives a fair opportunity to do so. Repealing Virginia’s outdated moral character law for liquor licenses would do both.

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