Law Requiring Former Felons Get a Waiver to Serve Alcohol to Stay on the N.H. Books

May 5, 2016

UPDATE: On Thursday the New Hampshire Senate without debate killed a bill that would have repealed a law requiring ex-felons to get a waiver from the state liquor commission in order to serve alcohol to the public. Original story follows below.

If you want to work as a server or bartender in New Hampshire, and you have a felony on your record, you have to do a little more than just fill out the application – you also need approval from the state liquor commission.

This requirement has been on the books since 1969 and an effort to change it, goes before the state Senate Thursday afternoon.

Keith Murphy has owned Murphy’s Taproom in Manchester for nine years.

He said over the years he’s hired several convicted felons mostly as dishwashers or cooks. He’s yet to hire any former felons to jobs where they’d serve alcohol or run the bar. That’s because if he did - he’d have to go through a waiver process with the state liquor commission.

“To be frank we get a lot of applications and it’s a hurdle to go through this process – it isn’t an immediate thing, it isn’t granted the same day or even the same week," Murphy said. "And it’s difficult to justify going through that process unless I have someone who worked for me for a very long time and frankly justify the extra trouble.”

Currently in New Hampshire, anyone convicted of a felony, no matter how long ago the offense, must seek a waiver from the liquor commission and provide a letter from their probation officer if they want to handle or serve alcohol to the public.

A bill going before the state Senate Thursday would repeal that requirement.

As it stands now, most waivers are approved,  provided the applicant has been off probation or parole for six months and hasn’t been convicted of any other crimes.

Since 2010, out of the 122 waiver applications that were submitted just 10 percent were denied. Most of these were because the applicant lied about his or her criminal history, committed more crimes since being released or the commission felt the specific felony conviction made the person unsuitable for the job.

But most employers like Murphy just don’t bother to go through the waiver process at all.

Murphy said he’s considered filling out the paperwork twice but was told by a private investigator that these applicants, who had criminal records involving sexual assault, would never get approved.

One was a dishwasher who Murphy wanted to promote to a position where he’d have to handle alcohol. “But it was 20-years ago, you know, he had gone to jail, he did time for that offense and I couldn’t promote him, which was disappointing,” said Murphy, who’s also a state representative.

Bar and restaurant owners have two months after they hire a felon to get the waiver, but once that times up then the liquor commission fines them $50 dollars a day.
Credit The N.H. Liquor Commission

Studies show that most people with a criminal record have trouble finding work even years after they’ve served their time.

Michelle Rodriguez of the National Employment Law Project said states should not be making it harder for former felons to find work as gainful employment is one of the biggest factors in preventing recidivism.

As for New Hampshire’s waiver process, Rodriguez said it might discourage employees from applying in the first place.

“Being in that situation where you are going to approach your employer to go that extra mile for you, that is not something I imagine a lot of workers are going to feel comfortable doing," Rodriguez said. "And instead what you are going to see is absolutely a chilling effect – they are not going to go for those opportunities.”

Out of the 17 alcohol-control states that regulate liquor sales, New Hampshire is one of three requiring third party approval to hire someone who will be handling alcohol.

Bar and restaurant owners in New Hampshire do have some wiggle room, the law gives them up to two months after hiring a felon to get the waiver. But they also face fines - $50 a day - if they don’t.

James Wilson, Chief of Enforcement and Licensing for the Commission, stands by New Hampshire’s waiver process and says it’s welcomed by licensees.

“Anecdotally I’ve heard from licensees, many of whom, actually think this is a cheap insurance policy for them because they find out something about potential applicants that they may not otherwise know," Wilson said. "And that can be beneficial in their decision of whether or not to employ a person with that kind of a history.”

The New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association said changing this law is not a priority but said its members would appreciate having less paperwork.

While the New Hampshire House passed the bill earlier this year, it looks poised to fall flat in the Senate this session. Rep. Bart Fromuth, a Republican from Bedford who sponsored the bill, said getting rid of the waiver process would remove barriers for people who have already served their time.

“I think if they are looking for employment, that sends a good signal to me that they are taking those necessary first and second steps," Fromuth said. "And then when we put all these prohibitions in our occupational licensing standards, I think it tells them don’t bother. You might as well go head and return to a life of crime or bad deeds or stay on the public dole because we are not interested in having you in the employment force.”

If the bill does fail this session, Fromuth said he plans to bring it back next year.