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Budtenders Are Being Put At Risk For COVID-19

While cannabis business owners are raking in profits, many workers on the frontlines are left vulnerable and without proper protection.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, states across the country have declared cannabis an essential business. The move marks a major advancement in public and policy perception of cannabis commerce and can be considered a major victory for cannabis business owners, who are not eligible for COVID-19 federal grant programs.

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Unfortunately, budtenders — who are the backbone of the industry — have been left incredibly vulnerable. 

Related: The Top 25 Budtenders of 2019

The move to allow cannabis businesses to operate during COVID-19 highlights how few protections exist for cannabis industry employees, notably dispensary staff. Employees are paid minimum wage, often with no medical benefits, and are expected to work long hours and put themselves and their community at risk.

The coronavirus crisis highlights important questions around workplace protection, paid time off, and hazard pay for employees. In an industry deemed essential to keep people healthy, are cannabis businesses exploiting their employees and increasing their risk of becoming sick?

Shocking survey results

I recently conducted a survey of 71 budtenders working in shops across the nation. While roughly 79 percent noted the initiation of an emergency workplace policy that protects potential risk of infection via social distancing, hand sanitizer, and the use of protective gloves, many of those employees still feel exposed as these policies are hard to enforce.

One budtender at a prominent Seattle dispensary described the difficulty of enforcing protective policy, “In the middle of a pandemic [customers] are being even more unruly and dangerous (a customer coughed at a coworker for enforcing the time limit and a different customer spit towards a supervisor). Coworkers are anxious,” the budtender said.

Furthermore, in order to remain operational, dispensary staff must interact with not only hundreds of customers but also vendors who make multiple stops throughout their day, interacting with many people and acting as a potential carrier for the virus.

A sales manager for a popular cannabis grow describes her experience in the survey: “I’m writing on behalf of us vendors who have to go to multiple shops a day, per week. Absolutely zero precautions have been provided for us...We are risking our health so people can get stoned. I have no gloves, no masks, no hand sanitizer, yet I'm expected to deliver products to multiple shops, encountering multiple people and dealing with a ton of cash.”

The profits aren't trickling down

While many businesses are hurting due to the pandemic, cannabis businesses are largely profiting. Over the past couple of weeks, hundreds of people have been flocking to dispensaries causing shops to reach record-breaking sales numbers. A manager of a Colorado dispensary, who chooses to remain anonymous, describes how her shop’s profits have tripled in just one week due to the overwhelming demand from consumers.

Related: Cannabis Sales Surge Over The Weekend As World Braces For Coronavirus

While this may seem great for the burgeoning industry, it is a horrific nightmare for the workers on the frontline, as they try to manage multiple customers thereby increasing the risk of infection. 

In a heartbreaking account, the Colorado dispensary manager wrote to me: “All of our workers are exhausted and scared...three hourly employees are sick and not being paid for missed time or allowed back until two weeks is up. One sick employee claimed they were exposed at their second job to someone on staff who tested positive for coronavirus. I’ve spent 30 hours with that person in the last week, and none of our policies changed after hearing someone exposed has been working for us. Meanwhile, we as a company have made $40,000 in increased profits in the past week. It’s enough to pay each employee $3,000 and still keep $10,000 extra, but we’ve seen no wage changes. I feel so exposed while living with someone who has severe breathing problems in general. I feel someone I love could die because of my unnecessary exposure to the public.”

With the increase in profits, cannabis business owners seem to care more about making money and less about the welfare of their employees. The workers on the frontline are assuming all of the risks but not seeing any of the increased profits.

Cannabis has been deemed essential as it is medicine for many people, but at what cost? 

No Paid Time Off

Out of the 71 survey responses, only one person noted that their company extended paid time off (PTO) to all staff members. When asked if employees were receiving financial benefits during this time, the all too common answer was a simple ‘No’." Employers had not extended PTO to staff and had actually taken measures to ensure staff would not have access to PTO or unemployment. 

One budtender, Winston Boney employed at Igadi in Colorado, explains, “I was asked to leave, not fired, just so they couldn’t give us PTO.”

Lauren Nicholson, an Assistant Manager at Oasis Cannabis in Seaside Oregon and a working mom without access to childcare during the pandemic, explained,  “No [I do not have access to PTO or unemployment]. I do not have a babysitter so I cannot work. As of now, I have no idea if or how I will be paid.”

For 98 percent of the budtenders surveyed, employers were not extending PTO, sick pay or hazard pay to employees, even though the shops have seen a dramatic increase in profit while people flock to dispensaries to stock up on cannabis essentials during this chaotic time. 

Doing the right thing

Despite the mistreatment of many budtenders, there are a few dispensary owners who are trying to do right by their employees. One budtender at Om of Medicine, a dispensary in Ann Arbor, Michigan, describes a brighter reality — one of support, kindness, and proactive protection from her workplace, “Our manager has been nothing but supportive," she says, "keeping proper guidelines with social distancing, employees separated when possible, and guests at appropriate distances. Many co-workers are self quarantined and have been supported very well.” 

This employee has also received a “10 percent increase in hourly pay” due to an increased risk of working during the pandemic. This particular experience provides an example of a step in the right direction for ethical operation in the cannabis industry. 

Says Andrew DeAngelo, cannabis industry consultant and co-founder of Harborside, a prominent dispensary chain, “The most important thing is to support the team emotionally and be present with them, when possible, so they understand we are truly in this together. Our budtenders are critical assets, we have to treat them like it and invest in their well being.”

Related: Will The Coronavirus Crisis Help Legalization Efforts In The Future?

DeAngelo has done just that, giving workers on the frontline of Harborside paid time off, sick leave, health benefits, and the option to participate in a free Employee Assistance Program that offers free advice and referrals and sometimes free hours of services to employees with elder care, pet care, childcare, and now care for issues related to COVID-19. 

Providing protections for budtenders is not only possible — it's essential. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights just how much work still needs to be done when it comes to employee protections and equitable practices in the cannabis industry. Cannabis business owners must act as a leading example for social responsibility, equitable operations, and employee care so that the industry can evolve into a more ethical paradigm.

COVID-19 has caused a re-examination of essential business, employee protection, and how we take care of each other as a community. In the fight for ethical operations and workers' rights and justice, the cannabis industry has a long way to go. One survey participant concluded her responses with important questions highlighting the greater, systemic financial inequality pervasive in this industry.

“At what point is it ridiculous to call recreational cannabis an essential need when people in this state [Colorado] are STILL in jail for selling it?" she asks. "What message are we putting out there if not that weed is only essential when white people are making the profit?”