Prioritizing Fair Treatment of California Cannabis Employees

California cannabis regulators are taking pointed aim at mistreatment of cannabis company employees throughout the state. The Department of Cannabis Control has sought assistance from law enforcement agencies throughout the state to help identify and root out labor exploitation, which they say has become a serious problem in the marijuana industry. There are even allegations of cartel-driving human trafficking within the cannabis industry. California cannabis employment lawyer

Even mor recently, the California Department of Industrial Relations issued a reminder to cannabis employers that they are bound to comply with California labor law requirements. Further, it was noted that labor protections apply to ALL workers – regardless of the worker’s immigration status or even the legal status of the business. That means individuals operating unlicensed cannabis businesses can catch heat not only for operating unlawfully, but also for failing to follow state statutes pertaining to worker rights.

As longtime Los Angeles cannabis lawyers who also practice employment law in Southern California, we are closely familiar with the intersection of these issues and the unique legal questions that can arise.

Cannabis businesses are expected to provide workers with:

  • Minimum wage. The statewide minimum is $15.50 as of January 2023. Some cities may impose higher minimum wages.
  • Overtime paid at 1.5 the regular rate. Generally, overtime rates must be paid if an employee works more than 8 hours in a day or more than 40 hours in a week. If the employee works more than 12 hours in a workday, they must be paid double for all hours worked in excess of eight on the seventh consecutive day of work in a workweek.
  • Valid workers’ compensation insurance. If the worker is hurt on the job, they have a right to expect workers’ compensation coverage, which is required by almost all employers in the state. If the company doesn’t have workers’ compensation insurance, they can be fined by the government and the worker can can sue them for damages.

The new unit of the DCC is aimed at taking action against cannabis companies that coerce or threaten workers, compel them to work in dangerous conditions, or deny them pay, benefits, or breaks to which they are entitled.

Last year, the Los Angeles Times published an investigation exposing the unfair treatment of cannabis workers, who are sometimes cheated out of wages, threatened with physical harm, or compelled to work in dangerous conditions that have actually proven fatal for some.

Allegations of employee abuse involving some 200 cannabis contractors and farms (half lacking state licensing) have been filed since marijuana first became legal in California. An estimated 37 cannabis workers have died on the job since 2016. In Lucerne Valley in December, an 18-year-old cannabis worker died in a greenhouse from suspected carbon monoxide poisoning. It was the same cause of death for a 30-year-old Mexican who died while working at a greenhouse in San Bernardino County. Carbon monoxide poisoning is the No. 1 cause of death among cannabis workers in California.

Other deeply troubling cases involve alleged instances of Argentinian immigrant workers toiling 14-hour days for weeks on end behind locked gates on a Trinity County farm – using a single-burner propane stove for cooking outdoors, a portable toilet, and a shipping container in which some slept at night. Others slept in tents or in their cars. Some said they were paid less than $8 hourly – rarely on time – and provided text messages showing their employer threatened to report them to immigration authorities if they complained.

Longtime California cannabis lawyers know that part of the problem is that the cannabis industry was underground for so long. For decades, cheap, vulnerable laborers were sought for work that was paid in cash and commonly exploited. Still, this doesn’t excuse the continuation of such practices now that the industry has been pulled aboveboard.

A number of sheriff’s offices in Northern California have started teaching officers in the narcotics division about how to identify, investigate, and intervene in suspected human trafficking situations.

The DCC has it’s own such unit, based in Fresno. It’s called the Human Trafficking/Exploitation Assessment and Response Team (or HEART). This marks a notable shift in the DCC’s response to labor exploitation. The agency had been primarily focused on licensing and regulating commercial cannabis operations. Any suspected cases were simply forwarded to state labor agencies. Now, the agency has more than a half dozen detectives who can work on human trafficking cannabis cases and refer to them to prosecutors and/or federal authorities. The team also provides training to law enforcement.

The Los Angeles CANNABIS LAW Group represents growers, dispensaries, ancillary companies, patients, doctors and those facing marijuana charges. Call us at 714-937-2050.

Additional Resources:

Cannabis workers face death and exploitation. California is stepping in after Times investigation, May 5, 2023, By Paige St. John, L.A. Times

More Blog Entries:

Los Angeles Cannabis Businesses Must be Audit-Ready, May 28, 2023, Los Angeles Cannabis Business Lawyer Blog

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