I work as a server in a small, family-owned restaurant. At night, my boss runs what I think is an illegal poker game upstairs. I serve the food and drinks for that too, but I’m not sure how comfortable I am with this arrangement. Is what they’re doing legal? I didn’t know about the game when I took the job, but I haven’t complained or refused to work it because the $$$ is good. But I’m wondering: Could I be held liable in any way if it ever got busted? (I get tipped in poker chips, which I cash in at the end of the night.) I’m concerned too because I’m not of the legal drinking age in my state. Please help! – Name withheld
First, a couple legal issues need to be addressed.
While the laws vary, in most states you do not need to be of a legal drinking age to serve alcoholic beverages to patrons, so long as it’s incidental to food service. At the very least then, you needn’t worry about being underage.
More tricky is the issue of the poker game.
Again, the laws vary – but according to the lawyer I consulted, if it’s a friendly game, your employer should be fine. It gets complicated, in part because it seems gambling laws have been changing recently, but profiting from the sale of food and beverages, for example, or rental of the room is allowed. If, however, they’re profiting from the game in any way—like charging a fee to play, or taking a cut of the winnings—it’s probably illegal.
As to your own liability, even if what your employer is doing is not on the up-and-up, you should be okay. As long as you’re not involved in the organization of the game, recruiting its players, or profiting directly from the gambling itself, you needn’t worry according to my source. Nor does the fact that you’re being tipped in poker chips put you in any legal jeopardy, either.
But beyond these legal concerns, there’s your peace of mind to consider. To that I would simply say: If you are at all uncomfortable with what your employer is asking you to do—and it seems that you are—it’s probably time to start considering your options. Sure – you could refuse to work these games in the future. But that’s likely to be an awkward conversation at the very least. And is it really going to make you feel any better anyway? Probably not.
So consider looking for another job.
This suggestion may come as a surprise to you given the frequently ‘insubordinate’ nature of my advice. If I’m not doing anything wrong, why not take advantage of a good thing while I can? you may be wondering. In my experience, however, the downsides of this arrangement—particularly the anxiety it seems to be causing you—far outweigh the benefits. Nor would I ever recommend anyone do anything that makes them at all uncomfortable, much less is borderline illegal, simply because it happens to be lucrative.
Fortunately for you, there’s no shortage of work to be found in the service industry right now. Someone like yourself, who’s both experienced and young, is going to be especially attractive to employers. Take advantage of this. In fact, I’d be surprised if you weren’t able to find something comparable quite quickly, even without a reference from your current employer.
In the meantime, perhaps you could try politely declining to work those evening poker games in the future? Maybe tell your employer that you now have an ongoing family commitment which prevents you from being available? Or a partner you’d like to spend more time with? Or even another job? Whatever. Then keep your head down, do your work, and quietly look for something else.
Hopefully the next time you roll the dice in selecting an employer—because that’s often just what it is, a gamble—you won’t come up snake eyes again.