Oregon legislators propose bill that would ban alcohol, tobacco sales at self-checkout lines increasingly seen at large grocery stores

PORTLAND, Oregon , March 18, 2013 () – Oregon grocers and checkers' union square off over sales via self-serve lines

Hey you! Forget about taking that six-pack of beer through the self-checkout line. Go through the regular line instead.

You might hear something like that at your grocery store if Oregon legislators pass a bill that would ban alcohol and tobacco sales at the do-it-yourself checkout lines that are increasingly common at large grocery stores.

The grocery industry and the union representing checkers squared off over House Bill 2398 at a hearing Friday before the House Business and Labor Committee.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which succeeded in winning legislative approval of a similar ban in California, says it's harder for clerks to police age-regulated sales while watching over several self-serve scanners at the same time.

Grocers say nobody can buy alcohol or tobacco at the self-scanners without a clerk checking for an ID card or allowing an obviously older buyer to proceed without a check.

Rep. Margaret Doherty, D-Tigard, the committee chairwoman, said she wasn't sure if there is the political support to move the bill.

"We'll kind of have to see how other members are thinking about it," she said.

Practically speaking, the bill would mostly affect the sale of beer and wine. Grocery stores in Oregon can't sell liquor, and cigarettes and other tobacco products are typically also kept behind a counter with a checker.

The current version of the bill also would ban the use of self-scanners for over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Doherty said she would strike those restrictions from the bill before allowing it to move.

Jeff Anderson, secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 555, said his union brought the bill to the Legislature because the large grocery chains are quick to fire workers who allow under-age people to buy alcohol or tobacco.

As a result, Anderson told the committee, he doesn't want to put clerks in jeopardy by having to watch several purchases at once.

"It's a necessary workforce protection, if you will," Anderson said.

Shawn Miller, a lobbyist for the Northwest Grocery Association, countered that the self-scanners automatically halt any transaction involving alcohol until a clerk checks to see if the buyer is old enough.

"There is a human interaction that is part of every alcohol transaction," said Miller, explaining that the process is the same whether the shopper uses a scanner or the regular checkout line.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission conducts about 1,700 undercover buys a year using minors to check compliance with the law. But Christie Scott, the commission's spokeswoman, said the agency hasn't tracked whether the self-scanning systems are more problematic.

Grocers clearly like them. Miller said they are growing in popularity, particularly with "people who may just have a few items for dinner that evening and they want to get out" of the store as soon as possible.

Joe Gilliam, the head of the grocery association, said in an interview that "the unions just don't want the self-checkouts" because it costs their members jobs.

Anderson, the UFCW official, denied that was the case. He said his union wants the industry to continue to innovate so it can remain financially strong.

In California, the union was particularly critical of a non-union grocery chain, Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets, that relied exclusively on self-checkout scanners.

The effort there to ban alcohol sales at self-scanners was also supported by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and proponents cited studies saying that the self-scanners didn't always prevent the sale of alcohol to minors.

While the California bill was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in late 2011, the grocery industry has pursued a legal challenge that has so far kept it from going into effect.

Jeff Mapes: 503-221-8209; jmapes@oregonian.com

(c) 2013 Oregonian Publishing Co.

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