Wednesday, March 12, 2014
WASHINGTON — Federal officials have found “reasonable cause” that Maine’s largest medical marijuana distributor violated laws protecting workers, in one of the nation’s first labor cases involving the burgeoning legal cannabis industry.
But an attorney for Wellness Connection of Maine, which operates four medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, and a National Labor Relations Board official said the parties are within days of settling the claims to avoid civil proceedings against the company.
Complaints filed on behalf of former employees of the company include claims that Wellness Connection retaliated against employees who raised concerns about pesticide use, interfered with workers’ rights to unionize and solicited workers to oppose the union.
Matt LaMourie, a Portland-based attorney for Wellness Connection of Maine, said, “Based on the discussions that I have had with the NLRB, I am very confident that we are going to be able to reach a settlement agreement with the agency.”
Meanwhile, the national labor union that’s advocating for the Maine workers saw national precedent in the case.
“It is significant that the National Labor Relations Board took a look at this new industry and said, ‘Yes, these workers have the right to work collectively,’ ” said Evan Yeats, spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
The NLRB’s New England office investigated more than 20 complaints filed by the union on behalf of former Wellness Connection employees, even though no medical marijuana dispensaries in Maine have formally joined the union.
The federal officials dismissed most of the complaints, but, according to the union, are allowing several to move forward to settlement or a court hearing.
“Only by sticking together, we were able to find the strength to speak out about the gross violations that we saw at work,” Jenifer Moody, a former Wellness Connection employee, said in a statement released by the union. “By fighting for our union, we are protecting our customers and shaping the medical marijuana industry into a safe and well-regulated industry that provides good jobs and needed medicine for our community.”
Kathleen McCarthy, supervisory attorney with the NLRB’s New England office, declined to provide details on the case Thursday, but said the regional director found “reasonable cause” that violations had occurred. McCarthy indicated that the union’s proclamations were premature.
“We anticipate completion of a settlement and that no (formal) complaint will be issued as a result,” McCarthy said.
The case is the first in which the National Labor Relations Board has recognized that federal labor laws apply to employees in the medical marijuana industry, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents more than 1.3 million workers nationwide.
The case also illustrates the growing pains of Maine’s medical marijuana industry and the increasing role that unions are playing in the national debate over the legalization of marijuana for both medical and recreational use.
A year ago, workers at a marijuana cultivation site operated by Wellness Connection in Auburn walked out in protest over the use of pesticides. That led employees to lodge complaints over safety and working conditions, and allege that supervisors interfered with workers’ interest in joining the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents medical marijuana workers in six other states.
Wellness Connection operates four of Maine’s eight medical marijuana dispensaries. It has faced a number of regulatory issues. The company has been fined $18,000 by the state Department of Health and Human Services for more than 20 violations, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined Wellness Connection $14,000 for health and safety violations.
LaMourie, the attorney representing Wellness Connection, said the company “was not interested in looking back at allegations and events that transpired a year ago” and would not comment on any complaints from former employees still pending with the NLRB.
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