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Lakeview, Boystown, Wrigleyville

Cresco Labs Weed Workers Push To Unionize: It’s ‘Physically Impossible’ To Social Distance In Shops, Budtenders Say

In one case, a shop manager said wearing a mask could lead to increased risk of contracting coronavirus, an email shows.

Workers at Sunnyside, a Lakeview weed dispensary owned by Cresco Labs, recently voted to unionize.
Justin Laurence/ Block Club Chicago
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LAKEVIEW — Workers at four Chicago-area pot shops will soon vote on whether to join a union, including a Lakeview dispensary owned by the state’s largest cannabis company.

On April 3, Local 881 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union filed a petition to represent workers at Sunnyside Lakeview, a dispensary at 3812 N. Clark St. owned by Cresco Labs. Workers at the dispensary say unionizing could help them secure better pay, predictive scheduling and would create a path to turn their retail jobs into careers.

But the company’s response to the coronavirus pandemic made the need to form a union all the more urgent, they said. Workers allege Cresco has been slow to address safety concerns and to mandate masks.

Workers at Cresco’s cultivation center in Joliet voted to join the same union in January, and workers at three other dispensaries — Med Men Evanston, Green Thumb Industries’ Compassionate Care Center in Naperville and Acreage Holdings’ Nature’s Care in Rolling Meadows— will hold union elections. At Sunnyside Lakeview, the dispensary’s 18 wellness advisors — a retail position commonly known as a budtender — would be eligible to join the union.

Dispensaries were deemed essential businesses under Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay at home order and given guidelines to promote social distancing and protect the state’s vulnerable medical patients, but Sunnyside Lakeview workers say the limited space inside the dispensary makes it impossible for employees to follow social distancing guidelines.

“… With the amount of people that work there in the course of the day … it’s physically impossible to have 6 feet of distance between everybody,” budtender Nicholas Stankus said.

The company is now providing masks for employees to wear, but managers have given conflicting guidance on whether employees should wear them, one budtender said. On April 19, a manager sent an email to one employee saying masks in some instances could lead to increased risk because wearing a mask makes people touch their face more. Block Club reviewed the email.

Early on during the stay at home order, a worker was taken off the register for wearing a mask and given other duties after being told the mask may scare customers, three employees told Block Club.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the wearing of face coverings in “public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”

Pritkzer announced last week everyone in the state would be required to cover their faces when in public and unable to practice social distancing starting May 1. Under the same order, all essential businesses must provide coverings to their employees.

In a statement, Cresco Labs spokesman Jason Erkes defended the company’s response to the pandemic, but he did not respond to specific claims made by workers.

“We respect our employees’ right to have a secret ballot election and pride ourselves on offering competitive pay and benefits as well as a positive working environment,” Erkes said. “… We immediately implemented new health and safety protocols including increased sanitation, forced social distancing, a reduced on-premise workforce, sneeze guards and accessible PPE, as well as an essential pay program for all our front line workers throughout being operational as an essential business during this pandemic.”

Three employees said the company has taken measures to protect workers and customers, but management was slow to respond to employee complaints. The reality of conditions inside the dispensary doesn’t always match the guidelines set forth but the corporate office, they said.

“I’m not saying anybody has the best scenario to solve this problem, but at the same time it didn’t seem as though the preference was for employee safety,” said Stankus, who has worked at the dispensary since July 2019, when it only served medical patients. Like other Illinois dispensaries, Sunnyside started serving recreational customers Jan. 1.

Prior to coronavirus, the employees said they had grown frustrated by shifting hours and weekly schedules that sometimes aren’t posted until the day before a new week begins. 

Ethan Kramer said the unpredictable schedule makes it difficult to plan for the week ahead. He is currently on a self-imposed leave of absence from the dispensary because of a health condition that puts him at greater risk to COVID-19. He was given two weeks paid time off, but he said he hasn’t received clear communications from the company that he’ll maintain his position when he’s able to return.

“The contract we’re hoping to negotiate if this vote does pass is definitely not, you know, just us demanding higher pay, but it’s specifically addressing things that we’ve tried to get Cresco to address and they were not willing or able to,” he said. “Things like constantly changing schedules, excessive length of shifts.”

Block Club was provided with a backlog of one employee’s schedule that shows their shifts were at times scheduled only a day beforehand.

None of Illinois’ dispensaries have unionized to date. In the state law that legalized cannabis, applications for new dispensary licenses will be given additional favor when they are scored if they include labor peace agreements. Those provisions do not affect the state’s existing medical dispensaries, which were able to convert to dual-use shops on Jan. 1 and permitted to open a second, standalone recreational weed shop.

The Sunnyside Lakeview dispensary is planning to move into a larger building in Wrigleyville, formerly home to John Barleycorn, 3524 N. Clark St., but will need an amendment to the state law that legalized cannabis before they can sell recreational weed at the new location. The law prevented medical shops from relocating before Jan. 1 and then converting to dual use, and it can only be changed through legislation, state officials confirmed to Block Club. 

A date for the election has not been set but it will be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. The union and employees who signed the petition are asking for a mail-in ballot to limit gathering while Cresco Labs is pushing for a traditional in-person election.

A majority plus one of those who vote in the election is needed for the workers to join the union. If they are successful, the union will only represent the budtenders at Sunnyside Lakeview and it not affect the rest of the company’s Illinois dispensaries. Moving to the larger location would not affect the employees’ union representation.

Kramer said he is confident about the vote, despite knowing a few coworkers don’t support joining a union.

“I’m very confident that if this vote were held now we would absolutely move forward to unionize,” he said.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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