How cannabis growers are handling labor and safety challenges during COVID-19

Marijuana cultivators are finding new ways to manage labor to meet the challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

This is yet another sector in the cannabis industry to adapt its operations in response to COVID-19, similar to retailers, for example, who have been using drive-thru and curbside pickup to keep customers and employees safe.

In some states, growers are experiencing increased demand for cannabis from retailers and developing staffing solutions to account for the uptick.

Others have avoided furloughing the cultivation crew or reducing hours by shifting work schedules.

Growers report they have altered protocol for employees to keep them safe and to maintain workflow.

A few of those adjustments include:

  • Staggering shifts into the evenings and on weekends so workers have more space to themselves.
  • Using digital solutions to prevent in-person contact.
  • Retaining and paying well those employees who are the most versatile to help out with multiple facets of the operation.
  • Communicating that employee health is a priority.

“You have to express how valuable everybody is,” said Colin Ferrian, director of virtual solutions for Lafayette, Colorado-based Urban-Gro, a product solutions company in the cannabis space.

Shifting hours

The good news is that hiring freezes and furloughs haven’t hit all cannabis companies because marijuana was deemed essential in some states, said Marcus Naramore, director of business development for Full Spec, a Seattle-based cannabis brand.

In response to safety concerns, managers are spacing out shifts for employees in the grow rooms by extending hours into the evenings and on weekends.

On top of that, Naramore said, growers are implementing robust cleaning regimens with scheduled periods to disinfect surfaces throughout the day.

“Everything’s wiped down,” he added.

Workers are also asked to comply with markings in facilities that indicate where an employee should stand to maintain adequate social distance.

“We’ve created an environment where risk is minimized,” Naramore said.

And so far, Naramore said, cultivation operators aren’t having much difficulty finding temporary workers to help out on trim crews as the demand for work is strong.

Leaning on tech

To prevent an abundance of in-person contact, East Fork Cultivars, an outdoor cannabis farm in Takilma, Oregon, relies on digital solutions to facilitate communication.

According to the company’s CEO, Mason Walker, the team uses instant messaging service Slack for internal communications, with dedicated channels to human resources and personnel topics.

While work hours are mostly the same, “weekly team meetings and daily meetings have turned into digital check-ins,” Walker said.

So far, the company hasn’t had to lay off anyone, but sales have been negatively impacted on the adult-use side of the market by the coronavirus, said Nathan Howard, co-founder and president at East Fork.

Their next challenge is to perfect “contactless delivery” when distributing products to retailers, something Walker said his team is working on.

When making deliveries, workers wear personal protective equipment and don’t count cash on-site to avoid possible exposure.

Jacks of all trades

When deciding who to keep on if furloughs and layoffs are necessary, one approach is to retain those employees who can function in multiple capacities, said Ferrian in Colorado.

When cannabis companies start to push for longer hours for reduced staff, employees who are still working are those who can operate equipment correctly and handle several different areas of the operation, according to Ferrian.

He also recommends that a business operator should express how valuable those workers are to the company.

“People are working in more dangerous environments because COVID-19 is out there,” Ferrian said.

Cultivation directors are especially important to retain, Ferrian said, because they know the facility in and out, including how to run the automated grow systems and diagnose problems in plants.

“Not everyone can tell the difference between thrips and spider mites,” he added.

Open communication

When it comes to payroll, the conversation can be a little tricky, according to Ferrian.

Workers are aware that they could be putting themselves at risk just by showing up.

He recommends basing wages on how the wholesale marijuana flower market is performing in your state.

For several states, an increase in demand has driven up prices, “so you can use that demand to pay your team more,” he added.

Another way to retain essential employees is to make them feel comfortable about expressing their health concerns, according to Meghan Miller, vice president of cultivation for Portland, Oregon-based Chalice Farms.

“The biggest problem we thought we would be facing is making people feel safe talking to us about it,” she added.

When the pandemic first began, her operation was finishing up the trimming part of the process. She required the trimmers to sit 6 feet apart and didn’t let them to move into other parts of the facility.

Miller said the company has assured its workers that no jobs would be lost because of illness.

She recognizes that several of her employees have children at home or are taking care of an elderly person and want to stay as safe as possible.

While Miller’s staff is relatively small – five cultivation technicians, a master grower and her – she still spreads out shifts to allow some people to work on the weekends.

Chalice Farms has also since discontinued facility tours, which were open to the public.

“We locked everything down,” Miller said.

Bart Schaneman 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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