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Essential But Nervous: Cannabis Workers on the Front Line of a Pandemic

With one exception, all states with some form of legal cannabis have either deemed cannabis businesses essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, or made no decision, allowing them to continue operating. But some cannabis workers are nervous—about their health and, in some cases, about their jobs. 

As with any workers in regular contact with the public, cannabis workers are on the front line of the pandemic. But the young industry is struggling in some cases to provide support, even as the threat of COVID-19 has created unique stressors for workers as they guard themselves from the virus and rely on customers to be responsible in their stores. 

Mitch Bickar, a budtender at Have A Heart dispensary in Seattle, said sales are up but the staff has been halved, with some employees feeling unsafe coming to work during this pandemic. “I feel like we’ve all been overburdened during this whole thing,” Bickar told Cannabis Wire. He’s afraid of contracting coronavirus and bringing it home. “If my family gets ill and something bad happens to one of them, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself.” (Have A Heart shops were recently acquired by Arizona-based Harvest Health and Recreation, one of the largest multistate operators in the US.)

Some states have seen spikes in demand for cannabis during the pandemic. In March, sales in Colorado were up by $18.6 million, compared with March 2019. In April, Oregon saw its highest demand ever for a single month.

Health measures have morphed as the crisis has evolved, with staff learning as they go. Social distancing measures can be tricky in small shops, and they typically require restricting the number of people allowed in at one time. At Have A Heart’s small dispensary in downtown Seattle, only four customers are allowed inside at once.

In Illinois, the dust had barely settled on newly-legal adult use cannabis sales when COVID-19 hit. Patrick Leavy became a budtender in January, a week into legalization, at the Chicago-area Sunnyside dispensary, owned by Cresco Labs. (Cresco is based in Chicago and, like Harvest, one of the largest multistate operators in the US.) Leavy estimates the small dispensary is about 15 by 35 feet, and is filled with eight to eighteen customers and staff at all times—making it difficult to follow proper social distancing guidelines. Recommendations by the CDC and the Chicago Department of Public Health to wear face coverings, he said, went ignored at his shop until Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker mandated them inside businesses starting May 1.

“The refusal of many Sunnyside managers and staff to follow the CDPH and CDC guidelines to wear masks previous to May 1 unnecessarily and dangerously compounded our risk of contraction [and] spread of COVID for weeks,” Leavy told Cannabis Wire. (Cresco did not respond to Cannabis Wire’s request for comment.)

In Massachusetts, in March, Governor Charlie Baker deemed medical cannabis essential but not adult use sales. Starting on May 25, adult use sales resumed curbside, but it will be at least three weeks before in-store sales can resume, assuming Phase 1 reopening goes as planned.

A spokesperson for New England Treatment Access, a medical and adult-use cannabis dispensary, said their shops saw an 85 percent drop in sales because of Governor Baker’s decision on adult-use cannabis, leading the company to lay off some workers and furlough others. The company did not share how many employees have been let go. Some former staff were frustrated with how the company informed them. Natasha Blackwell-Shire had been a budtender at the store’s western Massachusetts location for two years. She told Cannabis Wire employees were given the news in phone meetings. People who couldn’t make the meeting, she said, found out they’d been laid off when they could no longer access their company email addresses. “It could have been handled better,” Blackwell-Shire said. 

The company offered employees severance packages and health insurance through the end of April, Blackwell-Shire said. And, in a statement to Cannabis Wire, New England Treatment Access said it contacted laid-off employees via email if they couldn’t otherwise be reached, and offered guidance for transitioning to unemployment, as well as an opportunity to connect with its human resources department to get answers to questions. 

Not everyone is frustrated. In hard-hit New York, Kassan Seisay is a patient care coordinator at Vireo Health, a licensed medical cannabis outlet in the state. (Vireo Health was founded in Minnesota and has operations across the US.) He told Cannabis Wire the company has been supportive. He said the company split workers into two groups, and employees only work within their assigned group to help prevent spread of the virus. Most of the company’s operations have gone virtual and Vireo Health has provided employees with phones and computers to work occasionally from home. 

“They support their employees, they see the work they do and they appreciate it,” Seisay said.

But, he added, the number of patient orders at his location, in White Plains, is down.

Most orders at Vireo are either delivered to customers’ homes or are available for pickup outside the store. States’ policies on how cannabis gets to customers and patients vary. Some have approved curbside pickup due to COVID-19, while others still aren’t allowing delivery or pickup.

In Oregon, delivery was legal before the coronavirus outbreak and temporary new rules from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission have also made curbside pickup legal. But customers still are coming into the stores. Workers say it’s vexing to serve customers one pre-rolled joint.

“That just is not what being an essential business is about,” a Portland budtender who asked to remain anonymous told Cannabis Wire. She said morale is down at her shop. “It feels a little bit thankless these days.”

Bickar, at Have a Heart in Seattle, is irked by customers buying in small amounts, too. “I do feel like we should set limitations, like no orders less than $20.” Have A Heart is offering an extra $2 per hour as hazard pay, on top of the usual pay. 

Bickar has gone back and forth on his feelings toward the industry during the last few months. “I’m a former IT in the military,” he said. “I think I’m going to go back down that route and kind of venture away from the cannabis industry.”