Demand for seasonal cannabis harvest workers surges after industry layoffs

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Image of cannabis trimmers at work

Amid layoffs and rising costs, cannabis operators are turning to seasonal workers for such fall-harvest duties as trimming, bucking and processing. (Photo by MJBizDaily/Emerald)

Competition to secure seasonal workers for this year’s outdoor cannabis harvest has been fiercer than ever, according to executives at recruitment companies.

Many marijuana cultivators have reduced their full-time workforce in recent years in response to inflationary pressures, high interest rates and the steep cost of raising capital – and they’re making up for that labor with temporary employees.

“There have been a lot of layoffs over the past 18 months,” Kara Bradford, the co-founder and CEO of Seattle-based national cannabis recruitment and human resources company Viridian Staffing, told MJBizDaily in an interview.

“So they’re running slimmer crews and need that additional assistance because of harvest season.”

Total marijuana job numbers declined by 2% since the beginning of 2022, according to an April report by Denver-headquartered cannabis recruitment platform Vangst.

That decline was a first for the cannabis industry since states began legalizing marijuana, underscoring the need for MJ cultivation companies to seek out temp workers to cope with the fall harvest.

“What we’re seeing is a regression,” said Jacob Carlson, co-founder and CEO of Boston-based staffing company EzHire Cannabis.

“They weren’t able to actually build out a real cultivation team with full-time salaries or benefits.”

The jump in demand for seasonal employees comes as cultivators face increased competition for temp workers from mainstream industries that are grappling with the same macroeconomic factors as cannabis.

Moreover, marijuana harvest work is difficult – much more grueling than temporary retail jobs, Carlson noted.

That means there’s more turnover in cannabis, he added.

With background and criminal-record checks necessary in some states, growers also face more barriers to bring on a temporary marijuana workforce.

By contrast, Vangst CEO Karson Humiston said she sees the increased demand as a sign of a maturing market.

“Companies have gotten better at projecting their labor needs given that the industry is continuing to mature,” she told MJBizDaily in an interview.

The fall harvest season simply means there’s a demand for more workers through this crucial time of year, but the labor simply isn’t needed full time.

“Therefore, companies have done a better job of leveraging temporary employees this year than other years.”

Doing more with less

This year, Viridian is fielding more calls seeking temp workers through this fall’s “croptober,” when most of the outdoor harvest comes in.

However, Bradford said companies asking for help are often scared off by the cost of hiring a recruitment firm.

Growers often expect temp workers to be less expensive than full-time employees.

But that’s not the case, Bradford said, given inflation and the general rise in in wages.

The national average pay for a cannabis trimmer is $16 per hour, according to California-based employment marketplace ZipRecruiter.

But marijuana operators often forget that recruitment companies such as Viridian cover costs such as workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance and workplace safety training.

“They don’t understand that we have many other costs, in addition to the cost of finding those workers, hiring them, onboarding them, payrolling,” Bradford said.

“And then, once you let them go because they’re seasonal, handling any of the state unemployment requirements falls on us.”

In 2016 and 2017, Bradford said, full-time, non-cultivation employees were being called upon to help with outdoor harvests because of the high cost of capital and inexperience – operators didn’t realize how much help they needed for bucking, trimming and processing marijuana.

“We’ve seen that happen again,” she said.

“It’s an increase in demand, more need, but less funds to do so with.”

Smaller companies feel the crunch

Operators are also increasingly asking if they can defer payroll – that is, don’t pay Viridian for the cost of hiring temporary workers until after the harvest.

But Bradford said the company’s core competency is staffing, not serving as a bank or loan institution.

Viridian will work with existing and long-term clients it believes will repay, but the company will not give these favorable terms to all clients. It’s just too risky, Bradford said.

Larger companies such as multistate operators are at an advantage because they have more cash to burn, EzHire’s Carlson said.

They’re able to pay the recruitment company fee and a higher hourly wage (of about $20 per hour) to attract seasonal workers.

“It’s harder for the smaller shops because quite frankly, they can’t pay somebody $30 to $40 per hour,” he said. “Because that’s what it costs.”

Shifting requirements

Carlson said operators are increasingly looking for temporary harvest workers with experience, which often means those who have worked in the legacy market.

“On the trimming side, if you already know what you’re getting into, you’re more likely to stay, right?”

Trimmers can spend five to seven hours per day by themselves, he said – a job that is not suitable for everyone.

Humiston also said customers in more mature markets are looking for experienced temp workers with experience and who have already been trained to perform duties such as trimming. They’re also looking for those with regulated-market experience.

“For folks that are trained,” she said, “they demand a little but more money, but for a lot of businesses, it’s worth it.”

Start looking early

Humiston said she was pleased to hear from more companies looking for autumn harvest workers as early as April.

“That’s super promising because it shows that businesses are hiring really sophisticated HR talent and they can better forecast,” she said.

Bradford said operators with harvests in early September might start reaching out in June, which is helpful to coordinate workers who plan to travel south as workers are needed later in the autumn.

“We encourage folks to reach out to us as early as they possibly can,” Bradford said.

“That way we can provide a better experience for those individuals that are basically going from farm to farm.”

Kate Robertson can be reached at kate.robertson@mjbizdaily.com.