Legal Aid Groups in Oregon Receive State Funding to Recover Stolen Cannabis Farm Workers’ Wages

Stock photo of a cannabis plant.

John Rosman/OPB

Oregon state lawmakers allocated $6 million to community groups this year to help address what they called a humanitarian crisis for workers in the state’s cannabis industry. .

In the basement of a church in Medford, a group of migrant farm workers gather, all from different parts of Mexico in search of better paying jobs.

For the past few years, Jesus has found seasonal work on marijuana farms. (He chose not to share his last name due to his immigration status).

But Jesus says he and many other workers have stopped working on those farms after losing the wages they were promised last year.

“There was just a little marijuana left and they were about to take out the payment but then the bosses, the buds came,” he says. “They had a little meeting and all of the owner’s stuff disappeared that day. I saw afterwards that they gave us nothing, nothing.

Jesus says he lost $18,000 last year, all the salaries were never paid by the people who hired him.

He is not the only one. Many other migrant workers lost thousands of dollars in wages last year alone.

“The type of abuse we’ve seen in the cannabis industry has been very widespread and also very intense,” says Corinna Spencer-Scheurich, executive director of the Northwest Workers Justice Project.

Workers JPR spoke to described working 12-hour days in hot greenhouses, with no access to water and exposure to toxic chemicals. Most have never seen a penny for their work.

Cannabis farms are regulated under Oregon OSHA Rules for Agriculturebut according to law enforcement officials in southern Oregonthe worst working conditions often take place in illegal operations.

Some workers left before the end of the season, after discovering that they were not going to be paid.

Jesus says many employees he worked with quickly found work harvesting other crops like grapes or doing yard maintenance to make up for the lost wages they relied on to care for their families.

Kathy Keesee is one of the co-founders of One summera farmworker advocacy group in southern Oregon.

“We would typically have about 70 wage claims a year,” Keesee says. “Last year, in the last quarter of 2021 alone, there were around 200 wage demands. All of them came from the cannabis industry.

Salary claims are complaints filed with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. The agency is responsible for investigating complaints, settling disputes and, if appropriate, prosecuting or filing criminal charges against employers. Unete is a leading provider of support for agricultural workers facing wage loss or theft in southern Oregon.

Unete’s other co-founder, Dagoberto Morales, says they were the ones who came up with the idea for the $6 million grant, working with state lawmakers to get it approved earlier this year.

“They asked us because we are the only organization that has direct links with the workers,” he says. “And we’re still struggling to get what they need.”

Keesee says that after law enforcement busts an illegal cannabis operation, it’s organizations like Unete that come in to help provide emergency housing, clothing and other services to farm workers.

The grant is statewide, but the majority Oregon cannabis farms are found in the southern part of the state.

“The type of abuse we’ve seen in the cannabis industry has been very widespread and also very intense”

Funding is distributed through the Illegal Marijuana Market Enforcement Grant, operated by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. This program fund was created in 2018 to help local law enforcement and district attorneys’ offices combat the illegal cannabis market.

During the scholarship July 2020-July 2021 round, law enforcement seized nearly $3.5 million in cash, 156 firearms, more than 500,000 cannabis plants and 15,000 pounds of processed marijuana.

Keesee says Unete works closely with law enforcement during these raids to make sure farm workers caught in the middle get the help they need.

She adds that they have enlisted several legal groups to help with this new funding, including the Northwest Workers Justice Project. Spencer-Scheurich says wage demands can vary from person to person, and many workers don’t even know if the cannabis farms they work on are legal or not.

“If it’s an employer operating illegally who may be involved in some kind of more widespread criminal activity, there may not be safe or available recourse for our clients,” she says.

Spencer-Scheurich says when farms are legal, it’s easier to file a lawsuit. But with illegal operations, farm owners often provide fake names and phone numbers, leaving workers with no way to find them once they find themselves without a paycheck. Keesee says some of the wage demands can take more than a year to resolve.

It’s not just illegal farms that steal money from farm workers. Keesee says owners of licensed marijuana farms sometimes subcontract work to other managers, and those contractors may refuse to pay workers.

“The only way we can be sure which it is [legal or illegal]it’s if they open the doors and do inspections,” Morales says, complaining about the lack of oversight of cannabis farms in the state.

The Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission only knows the locations of licensed producers, and Keesee says sometimes the inspection process takes so long that producers have time to hide anything illegal.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission has banned alcoholic beverages infused with the inactive ingredient in cannabis, CBD.

The exterior of an Oregon Liquor Control Commission building.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

“They [OLCC] go and they see that the plants are tall. And then when they come back to test, the plants are babies, so the THC levels are very low,” says Keesee.

Morales would like to see the OLCC be more aggressive in inspecting cannabis crops, such as performing more surprise inspections to prevent growers from hiding anything illicit.

Many of these farm workers fear the threats of violence or legal repercussions they could face if they seek help, making it harder for groups like Unete.

Keesee says they’ve only been successful so far because of the time they’ve spent integrating into the farmworker community.

“We’ve been here 25 years,” says Keesee. “People know that if they come here it’s a safe place for them.”

Spencer-Scheurich adds that additional protections are available for undocumented workers who come forward and speak to police, including ways to obtain legal status.

Keesee plans to leverage the trust they have established with Unete to refer these workers to other legal aid groups involved in the grant. She hopes the money will help them reach more people.

“But the biggest piece is going to be the education piece,” she says. “Just so people know what their rights are, who to contact for wage claims, things like that.”

As more farm workers understand their rights and the resources available to them, organizers hope their employers will be less likely to withhold wages in the coming seasons.

State funding is generous in its timing. These organizations have until 2025 to spend it all, giving them time to develop more programs, education and outreach to help farm workers recover.

Programming for this funding is expected to be fully operational by fall 2022. Spencer-Scheurich says the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project is currently hiring a paralegal to travel to southern Oregon to help manage this influx of wage demands. They hope to help as many people as possible who work in cannabis cultivation.

“Operations require a lot of workers. Because if they don’t pay, workers eventually find a way to escape or leave if they don’t get paid,” says Spencer-Scheurich. “We think this is a much bigger problem than what we can currently see.”

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