Legal aid groups in Oregon get state funds to recover stolen wages for cannabis farm workers
Oregon state lawmakers allocated $6 million to community groups this year to help with what they’ve called a humanitarian crisis for workers in the state’s cannabis industry.
In the basement of a Medford church, a group of migrant farm workers gather, all of them coming from different parts of Mexico in search of better paying jobs.
For the last few years, Jesus found work seasonally on marijuana farms. (He chose not to share his last name because of his immigration status).
But Jesus says he and many other workers stopped working at these farms after losing out on the wages they were promised last year.
“There was just a little bit of marijuana left and they were about to bring out the payment but then the bosses, the heads arrived,” he says. “They had a little meeting and all the owner's stuff disappeared that day. I saw after that they didn't give us nothing, nothing.”
Jesus says he lost $18,000 last year, all wages never paid by the people who hired him.
He’s not the only one. Many other migrant workers lost out on thousands of dollars in wages last year alone.
“The kind of abuses that we’ve seen in the cannabis industry have been very widespread and also very intense,” says Corinna Spencer, director of the Northwest Workers Justice Project.
Workers JPR talked to described 12-hour work days in hot greenhouses, no access to water and exposure to toxic chemicals. Most never saw a single dime for their work.
Cannabis farms are regulated under Oregon OSHA rules regarding agriculture, but, according to law enforcement officials in Southern Oregon, the worst working conditions often take place at illegal operations.
Some workers left before the season was over, after finding out they weren’t going to get paid.
Jesus says many of the employees he worked with quickly found work harvesting other crops like grapes, or doing yard maintenance to make up for the lost wages they counted on to take care of their families.
Kathy Keese is one of the co-founders of Unete, a farm worker advocacy group in Southern Oregon.
“We usually would have like 70 wage claims a year,” says Keese. “Last year, just in the last quarter of 2021, there were like 200 wage claims. All of them were from the cannabis industry.”
Wage claims are complaints filed with Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries The agency is charged with investigating claims, settling disputes, and if it comes to it, suing or filing criminal charges against employers. Unete is a major provider of support for farm workers facing lost or stolen wages in Southern Oregon.
Unete’s other co-founder, Dagoberto Morales, says they were the ones that came up with the idea for this $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 connections with the workers,” he says. “And we’re always struggling to get what they need.”
Keese says after law enforcement busts an illegal cannabis operation, it’s organizations like Unete that come to help provide emergency housing, clothing and other services for farm workers.
The grant is statewide, but the majority of Oregon’s marijuana farms are in the southern part of the state.
"The kind of abuses that we’ve seen in the cannabis industry have been very widespread and also very intense"
Funding is being distributed through the Illegal Marijuana Market Enforcement Grant, run by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. That program fund was created in 2018 to assist local law enforcement and district attorney’s offices in addressing the illegal marijuana market.
During the grant’s July 2020-July 2021 cycle, law enforcement agencies seized almost $3.5 million in cash, 156 firearms, over 500,000 marijuana plants and 15,000 pounds of processed marijuana.
Keese says Unete works closely with law enforcement during these raids to ensure that farm workers caught in the middle get the help they need.
She adds they’ve tapped multiple legal groups to help with this new grant funding, including the Northwest Workers Justice Project. Corinna Spencer says wage claims can vary from person to person and that many of the workers don’t even know if the cannabis farms they’re working on are legal or not.
“If it’s an employer who is operating illegally who may be involved in some sort of criminal activity that’s more widespread, there may not be safe or available remedies for our clients,” she says.
Spencer says when farms are legal, it's easier to file a lawsuit. But with illegal operations, the farm owners often provide false names and burner phone numbers, leaving workers with no way to find them once they’re left without a paycheck. Keese says some of the wage claims can take over a year to resolve.
It’s not just illegal operations that are found stealing money from farm workers. Keese says owners of licensed marijuana farms sometimes contract work out to other managers, and those contractors may refuse to pay workers.
“The only way we can make sure which one it is [legal or illegal], is if they open the doors and do inspections,” says Morales, complaining about the lack of supervision of cannabis farms in the state.
The Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission only knows the locations of licensed growers, and Keese says sometimes the inspection process takes so long that growers have time to hide anything illegal.
“They [OLCC] go and they see that the plants are big. And then when they go back to actually test, the plants are babies so the THC levels are very low,” Keese says.
Morales would like to see the OLCC be more aggressive in inspecting cannabis grows, like conducting more surprise inspections to prevent growers from hiding anything illicit.
Many of these farm workers are afraid of the threats of violence or legal repercussions they could face if they seek help, making it harder for groups like Unete.
Keese says they’ve only been successful so far because of how long they’ve spent embedded in the farmworker community.
“We’ve been here for 25 years,” says Keese. “People know that if they come here this is a safe place for them.”
Spencer adds that additional protections are available for undocumented workers who come forward and talk to police, including ways to get legal status.
Keese plans on leveraging the trust they’ve built 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 gonna be the education piece,” she says. “Just to let 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 the less likely their employers will be to withhold wages in future seasons.
The state funding is generous in its timeline. These organizations have through 2025 to spend it all, giving them time to build out more programming, education, and outreach to help farm workers recover.
The programming from this funding is expected to be fully up and running by fall, 2022. Spencer says Northwest Workers Justice Project is currently hiring a paralegal to travel to Southern Oregon to help with this influx of wage claims. They’re hoping to help as many people as possible who work in cannabis cultivation.
“Operations are cycling through a lot of workers. Because if they’re not paying, eventually workers tend to find a way to escape or leave if they’re not getting paid,” Spencer says. “We believe it to be a much bigger problem than we can currently see.”