Article by Sam Riches, Growth Op
What began as an historic union drive last month between WeedMD and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has morphed into a dispute about worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to individuals involved in the dispute.
Kevin Shimmin, UFCW national representative, says efforts to unionize production staff began after workers contacted UFCW about health and safety concerns, such as elevated levels of carbon dioxide in grow rooms and pesticides being sprayed with workers present. Management at WeedMD says those allegations are unfounded.
Now, with the country in the grips of the coronavirus crisis, Shimmin says UFCW is receiving calls from employees “expressing serious concern about their own protection and that of their coworkers.” Eighteen WeedMD employees are in self-isolation, he says, with some displaying symptoms of coronavirus. Others are self-isolating due to the health of family members or because of recent travel, he says.
According to a letter sent from UFCW to WeedMD’s legal representative, employees are concerned about access to adequate supplies of masks, hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment, among other issues.
Management at WeedMD characterizes those allegations as “absurd and irresponsible.” They rejected the claim that 18 employees are self-isolating, explaining that the number is not static.
“At any given time it changes because if people are not feeling up to par they are following the public health guidelines and self-regulating and staying at home, which is what they should be doing,” says Marianella delaBarrera, vice president of communications and corporate affairs. There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in any WeedMD employees.
Shimmin says the employees who are self-isolating are not being paid. DelaBarrera says that employees that are able to work from home are doing so, and are being paid. But in the case of production staff, who cannot perform their duties remotely, resources are being shared “to make sure they have some form of compensation in place.”
Those resources include information about how to apply for employment insurance, sickness benefits and what the requirements are. If employees are not able to access EI, information is being provided about how to apply for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, which provides a payment of $2,000 for a four-week period and runs for up to 16 weeks.
“This is something that has never happened before, so much like many other employers in Canada, we’re writing the rule book as we go,” delaBarrera says. “So these are lessons learned and we are taking note and making sure that moving forward we will have better measures in place that will allow us to respond a little more effectively for our employees. But, again, we are providing them with the resources they need to be compensated during this time.”
Some production activities have been moved to a secondary building, she says, and extra sanitization steps are being taken. Shift times have been staggered to ensure social distancing, and management says they are also issuing weekly correspondence to all employees with the latest information about safety protocols and COVID-19.
Regarding concerns about a shortage of masks or personal protective equipment, WeedMD’s management says they have a “very healthy backlog of supplies.” Earlier this week, alongside medical cannabis company Starseed Medicinal Inc., WeedMD donated more than 23,000 face masks and gloves in varying sizes tothe Ontario Ministry of Health. They’ve also switched the types of masks employees use to avoid contributing to a bottleneck of N95 masks.