Coronavirus sparks marijuana retail workers to try unionizing in Illinois, Massachusetts

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated unionization efforts at a handful of cannabis stores and dispensaries in Illinois and Massachusetts that, if successful, could result in thousands of dollars in added staffing costs for the multistate operators that own the establishments.

Safety concerns are among the issues spurring the unionization efforts, as well as pay, benefits, scheduling, recognition and having a say in a company’s future.

Successful union drives might mean the marijuana companies involved could end up paying significantly more per employee in higher wages and benefits, according to industry experts.

But companies can benefit economically as well, through increased employee loyalty and retention and highly motivated customer service.

Unions, especially the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, have conducted organizing activities in the emerging cannabis industry in recent years but with only modest success. Also, labor activities have sometimes sparked tension.

The stepped-up unionization efforts in cannabis seem to parallel similar activities by mainstream unions and frontline workers across the country amid the pandemic.

COVID-19’s role in unionization efforts

Union officials say frustrations have built up for a while and reached a tipping point during the coronavirus outbreak among marijuana retail employees.

“It wasn’t until this crisis hit us that these workers realized that nothing has changed and it will never change, so we have to do something about it,” said Moises Zavala, organizing director for UFCW Local 881 in Illinois.

Cannabis company officials maintain they provide competitive wages and benefits and have put in place new health and safety measures to protect workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Linda Marsicano, vice president of corporate communications of Illinois-based Green Thumb Industries, which is seeing organizing activities at one of its Chicago-area dispensaries, said it respects the labor rights of its employees.

But the company also noted it is making health and safety of its employees and patients/customers a top priority.

“In connection with COVID-19, we have altered our delivery model, where permissible, and revised our staffing and cleaning schedules,” Marsicano wrote in an email to Marijuana Business Daily.

“We have implemented social-distancing measures and other health- and safety-focused operating procedures, including the provision of personal protective equipment, to align with federal, state and local requirements and recommendations on COVID-19.”

MJBizDaily identified at least five petitions filed by the UFCW in April with the National Labor Relations Board to represent workers at marijuana retail outlets in Illinois and Massachusetts.

Where unionization is gaining steam

The outlets and owners identified in the NLRB filings are:

  • Cresco Sunnyside, Lakeview, Illinois.
  • Curaleaf, Hanover, Massachusetts.
  • MedMen Enterprises, Evanston, Illinois.
  • Nature’s Care (Acreage Holdings), Rolling Meadows, Illinois.
  • 3C Compassionate Care Center (Green Thumb), Naperville, Illinois.

The petition for a union election at the MedMen location was withdrawn on April 27, but the UCFW’s Zavala said employees and the union are gathering support for a potential petition for a union election at MedMen’s stores in Evanston and Oak Park, Illinois.

The petition for a union election at Nature’s Care in Rolling Meadows was withdrawn on April 30.

However, Zavala called it a temporary move that occurred when new employees were brought into the store “to offset the union support by generating confusion and fear. We feel confident that the employees will want to refile soon.”

Howard Schacter, vice president of communications for Acreage Holdings, didn’t respond specifically to Zavala’s claim.

But Schacter wrote in an email to MJBizDaily that “we are proud of the competitive compensation and benefits we offer our employees, as well as the safe work environment we maintain – and have continued to maintain during this incredibly challenging time – and believe our employees recognize it, too.”

Zavala said the Illinois employees seeking to unionize have complained for months about low wages, last-minute schedule changes, worker safety and other issues.

“For a long time, these workers felt a need to improve those conditions,” he said. “But many felt the company would eventually do right by them and provide better wages and benefits.”

The issues not only continued during the pandemic, but Zavala said the workers felt they were being disrespected and not adequately protected.

Megan Carvalho, director of organizing for UFCW Local 328, which includes Massachusetts, indicated worker disenchantment at the Curaleaf medical cannabis dispensary in Hanover, Massachusetts, also has been building for a while.

“Workers are realizing that big cannabis operations are not doing 100% right by them,” she said.

Diana Nicholas, an inventory team lead at the dispensary, said she reached out to the UFCW in early December 2019 when she saw that Sira Naturals had become the first cannabis company in Massachusetts to unionize.

Unionizing efforts at Curaleaf became serious in late March as the coronavirus outbreak became a widespread crisis.

Nicholas credited Curaleaf for providing personal protection equipment but said other issues troubled employees, such as working as many hours as before and being given only a small bonus in one paycheck as well as company delays in providing curbside pickup.

The issue isn’t just wages and benefits, she said, but employees asking to be recognized and included in decisions regarding the growth and future of the company.

“A lot of us are patients as well. We feel our knowledge is very powerful,” Nicholas added.

But the job, she said, can be emotionally taxing.

“I enjoy working with Curaleaf and like to help patients; it’s just a matter of being recognized that we are essential,” Nicholas said.

Curaleaf didn’t respond for comment.

In Illinois, the UFCW especially has singled out Cresco Labs, a multistate operator based in Chicago.

A union leaflet claims Cresco Sunnyside in Lakeview, a Chicago suburb, has been slow to provide protections during the coronavirus pandemic, constantly changing schedules and paying low wages.

Jason Erkes, a Cresco spokesman, disputed those allegations.

“We immediately implemented additional health and safety protocols surrounding COVID-19, including increased sanitation, regulated social distancing, a reduced on-premise work force, sneeze guards and accessible PPE (gloves and masks) as well as an essential-pay program for all of our frontline essential workers,” he wrote in an email to MJBizDaily.

He said the company hasn’t released any numbers for its “essential pay” but said it is a per-hour increase for hourly employees and a bonus for managers.

Erkes said Cresco respects the rights of its employees to have a secret-ballot election but prides itself on offering competitive pay and benefits.

Cresco will serve as the first test of how successful unionizing efforts will be during this age of coronavirus: Ballots were to be mailed out May 1, with workers having until May 22 to respond.

Jeff Smith can be reached at [email protected]

For more of Marijuana Business Daily’s ongoing coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on the cannabis industry, click here.

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