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Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

The shifting terrain of legal employment in the cannabis industry


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We're a month and change into legalized recreational weed and it would be safe to say that things feel a tad ... unstable. The county planning department is up to its ears in permit approvals, the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors are still tinkering with the permit and tax process, the cities of Arcata and Eureka, as well as the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water Board, have challenged a Planning Commission decision to allow a manufacturing facility next to the Mad River, and 29 people addressed the Board of Supervisor's Feb. 12 meeting to express frustration with the impact of the excise tax system on small growers. One of the highly touted benefits of legalization was job growth. So where are we with that?

Well, at first glance, it doesn't look great. While the agendas for the Planning Commission are chock-a-block with permits for legal grows, it's tough to measure how much of that is actually trickling down to the little guy. Word on the wind is that most people are scaling up to compensate for falling per-pound prices and not hiring additional staff to tend to their "girls," with some fearing a resulting dilution in quality.

A quick scan of on-the-books jobs doesn't bode well. Most of the legal jobs in the cannabis industry (distribution, budtender, etc.) top out at around $15 an hour. That's nothing to sneeze at but it's not a living wage if you have a family to support. The only well-paid cannabis industry job we could find on Craigslist was working for the county processing permit applications. Still, according to Lucy Robson at Emerald Employment, it's only February and things are bound to pick up in March. Robson, whose company offers payroll services and employee recruitment for permitted farmers, says the onerous permitting process has created a bit of a bottleneck in the creation of ancillary jobs associated with the cannabis industry.

"We're doing our best to be the leading experts and navigate all of this," she tells the Journal. "It's a brave new world. Right now the challenges are just the holding patterns the farms are in, and other businesses in terms of the permitting process."

Those other businesses include distributors (the lack of which has contributed to plummeting prices for white market farmers, who are prohibited from distributing themselves, according to Robson), transportation and tourism. Once permits open up and are approved for those sectors, Robson believes she might be putting more people to work.

Meanwhile, for existing scenes that require workers, the dynamic is very different than it used to be. The impacted housing market in many rural communities means workers must either live onsite or spend most of their paychecks commuting to the farm. And permitted farmers who want staff onsite must now provide heated facilities with locking doors and ADA-compliant bathrooms — no more tent camping.

Robson says the declining wages for trim workers — $13 to $15 an hour of taxed income versus $20 an hour under the table — has had an inverse relationship in the ability to recruit qualified employees. Still, bringing things out into the open and being able to vet and drug test employees can be a game-changer for farmers who only want trusted people on their scenes.

How this is going to shake out as the industry develops is anyone's guess. Robson expresses optimism, although she calls the current landscape "daunting." Until things settle, everyone — including Robson — will have to learn some new ways to be frugal.

"I don't buy shredded cheese anymore, I buy block cheese and shred it myself," she jokes.

Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or linda@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.


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