Cannabis comrades

As industry booms, Illinois employees want better pay and protection

click to enlarge Briana Rodriguez speaks to reporters and those gathered at a March 3 press conference outside Ascend's downtown location. - CREDIT: RACHEL OTWELL
Credit: Rachel Otwell
Briana Rodriguez speaks to reporters and those gathered at a March 3 press conference outside Ascend's downtown location.

Working with cannabis was a dream come true for Leddie Lewis of Springfield. Her father had been diagnosed with cancer in 2015. Before he died in 2016, medical cannabis helped improve the quality of the days he had left, she said. "It pushed me into this drive to want to help other people."

Lewis started at Ascend's downtown Springfield dispensary in October of last year. It serves medical patients as well those seeking adult-use, sometimes called recreational, cannabis. Lewis was ready to start a career in the industry, she said.

And that industry is booming. Illinois sold more than $1 billion in both medical and adult-use cannabis in 2020, after becoming the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana. Illinois sold $169.6 million worth of adult-use cannabis, not including medical, in the first two months of 2021 – more than double what was made in the first two months of 2020. That's according to pre-tax figures from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. Workers say they deserve wages and benefits to match the growth of the burgeoning market.

Lewis said she had immediate concerns about safety protocol, such as proper mask wearing, when she started the job. And then she got sick. On Nov. 11 a COVID-19 test confirmed she was positive, she said. She can't say for sure that she contracted the virus while on the job, but said she thinks it was a strong possibility. She said people would work sick, worried that otherwise they'd be penalized for missing work. "People were scared," said Lewis. "It was stressful every day."

Lewis was one of several past and present employees interviewed who said communication over COVID cases by management was lacking. Lewis raised concerns over safety guidelines with higher-ups, but those concerns largely went ignored, she said. So this January, she resigned. A spokesperson for Ascend declined to answer questions or provide comment for this story.

Gaining ground

Some of Lewis's former coworkers have decided to unionize in hopes of achieving better pay and benefits and to raise COVID-19 safety standards. "We attempted to make ourselves heard for many months," said Briana Rodriguez, an Ascend employee. "Fighting for the union will help us gain our rights back," she told those gathered at a press conference on March 3 outside the facility at 628 E. Adams St. Ascend has one other location in Springfield, off of Dirksen Parkway, but that location is not part of the unionizing efforts.

The profits of the new industry Rodriguez is working in were not lost on her. "I bring in enough money to pay off my whole college tuition in one shift – in a few hours of it." During the press conference Moises Zavala passed around a paper outlining benefits of unionizing. Zavala is director of organizing for Local 881 of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. The list was based on guarantees for workers at Sunnyside Cannabis Dispensary in Chicago after it became the first dispensary in the state to ratify a union contract last month.

Changes included more paid vacation time, raises, reduced health care coverage costs and a grievance process involving union investigations into discipline, terminations and claims of unsafe working conditions, according to 881 UFCW. In advance of the press conference, an employee using only the first name of Jonathan claimed in a March 2 news release that there had been multiple COVID cases inside Ascend's downtown dispensary, but the store remained open with little reassurance that the environment was safe. The same release announced the National Labor Relations Board had commenced a mail-in union election for the Ascend workers.

Zavala told Illinois Times that the complaints in Springfield are not unique. In addition to the one dispensary that has unionized in the state so far, workers at a cultivation center in Joliet also approved a union contract late last year, becoming the first cultivation center in the state to do so. "The pandemic was the turning point to get cannabis workers to realize that they had to organize," Zavala said. He said prior to the pandemic, 881 UFCW was trying to mobilize cannabis workers in the state. Most of them "weren't taking our message seriously, because they were in the stage where they thought that the company was going to do good by them."

Pioneers

A March 2 letter addressed to Ascend workers congratulates them for their efforts to unionize. "Through your hard work and partnership with the labor movement, working families in your community will improve their standard of living," the letter read. It urged a yes vote for the election that will decide whether or not Ascend's downtown Springfield location becomes a union shop. It was signed by four state senators – Robert Peters, Omar Aquino, Ram Villivalam, Melinda Bush – and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy.

In early March, Eric Craddock, an Ascend employee, found out he was in close contact with someone at work who had tested positive for COVID-19. He subsequently tested negative, and was still told by the Illinois Department of Public Health and Sangamon County Department of Public Health to quarantine for 14 days as a precaution. But according to Craddock, initially human resources at Ascend told him to return to work before the 14 days were over, or he'd be penalized.

An Ascend policy dated March 8, 2021, and reviewed by Illinois Times states that an employee who's been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 should take a rapid response test within two to five days of the exposure. The test results are to be shared with the human resources department. If the test is negative, the employee "will report to work" – according to the policy.

When asked if a cannabis dispensary would be able to ask employees to return to work before a time frame advised by public health representatives, Gail O'Neill, director of the Sangamon County Department of Public Health, told Illinois Times it is the health department and contact tracers who make the final decision on when a person can be released from quarantine. "Employers asking employees to return to work while they are ordered to be in isolation or quarantine are asking them to break the law," she wrote in an email.

Craddock said he was eventually told by Ascend HR he could finish the quarantine without being penalized. Still, he said in multiple cases, the company has downplayed or ignored complaints and inquiries about safe and proper protocol. "The union would give us a way for our voices to not be ignored," said Craddock.

Robert Bruno is professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He said the cannabis industry is "one where a labor union is actually well situated to play an important role as a partner in making sure that rules and regulations are followed." Bruno said cannabis workers who are on the forefront of unionizing the industry in Illinois are "new pioneers." Often, movements within labor start small, Bruno said.

As was announced at the union press conference on March 3, election ballots have been sent to the 40 or so employees at Ascend who are eligible to vote. In order to be represented by 881 UFCW, more than half of the ballots cast must be yes votes. The votes will be counted on April 20 – also known as 4/20 – a day highly celebrated in cannabis culture, as the number 420 denotes marijuana consumption. Just a coincidence, apparently. Perhaps it's serendipity.

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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