One of the major benefits touted by proponents of cannabis legalization is job creation. Currently in Seattle, there are 46 licensed retailers, 19 producer/processors, 20 processors, and numerous ancillary businesses. But as my column last week about Uncle Ike's violating the minimum wage shows, there are concerns about the quality of these jobs.
Curious about whether the "green rush" is living up to its economic promise, I chatted with cannabusiness owners and employees to get a clearer picture of what pot jobs are like. What I found is that, while the industry isn't exactly a wet dream of worker empowerment, it's not exactly a smoldering garbage fire either.
For starters, after the recent flap, Ian Eisenberg raised Uncle Ike's starting wage to $11 an hour, 50 cents over minimum wage. Sam Burke, who owns Ruckus on Capitol Hill, said his budtenders start at $12 an hour, plus tips, and move up to $13 to $15 an hour after 90 days. Ryan Kunkel, who owns the Have a Heart chain, said he pays his employees $13 an hour plus tips for the first 60 days, bumping them up to $15 after. Store managers make anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 a year.
Dockside Cannabis, in Sodo and Shoreline, starts budtenders at $15 an hour and shift leads at $16. They don't do tips, instead collecting donations for various environmental causes, but they do offer regular bonuses when the shop meets certain sales goals. They also promote from within, according to Maria Moses, a co-owner.
At Stash in Ballard, employees start at $13 an hour plus tips, and after a 90-day probationary period are bumped up to $15 an hour, according to buying manager Shea Hynes.
A recently hired budtender named Tamsen Fuhs said working at Stash was a step up from her previous job as a barista at Starbucks, where she made the same base wage but only about $1 to $2 an hour in tips, as opposed to $5 to $6 an hour at Stash.
Josh Glasgall, Stash's managing editor, said he'd actually taken a significant pay cut to work in cannabis. He left his financial services job in New York, thinking he'd work at a craft brewery out West. Instead, he ended up at Stash as a night manager, eventually moving up to his current job producing the company's content.
While he declined to share his salary, he said he is able to live comfortably enough in Seattle. Perhaps most importantly, he said he was far more fulfilled by his current job than his work in financial services.
Trey Reckling, sales manager for Kush Tours and one of the developers of Seattle Central's medical marijuana consultant class, said the primary benefit of working in cannabis is not monetary. "It's funny, a lot of people assume that everyone went into the cannabis industry for the money," he said. "Others assume those who have are rolling in the piles of cash [from] the so-called 'green rush.' On the ground, you see many people working hard, working long hours, and not driving sports cars. The people I see are motivated more by what they can do to help other people."
Still, that doesn't mean people aren't entitled to a living wage—or benefits. "[The recreational market] is coming out of an unregulated marketplace and kind of an underground economy," said Nathe Lawver, communications director for UFCW Local 367, the first union in Washington to organize cannabis retail workers. Now that it's legal, he said, it's high time to start thinking about improving working conditions.
A budtender working in the recreational market who asked to remain anonymous said his main complaint is the "total lack of benefits or paid time off that seems to be status quo in the industry at large."
Of all the pot shops I informally surveyed—Uncle Ike's, Stash, Have a Heart, Dockside, and Ruckus—only Uncle Ike's offers health benefits and paid time off to its employees.
Cannabusiness owners say health insurance just isn't within their budget, and they blame taxes for their limited profit margins. Under section 280E of the federal tax code, legal pot businesses must pay federal taxes on the sale of their federally illegal drugs, yet they can't deduct any business expenses besides the cost of goods. Until the issuing of a recent IRS memo, retailers couldn't even write off state taxes.
Kunkel suggested that easing up the tax burden would do the most to improve pay in the industry. "There's 35 percent right there that would be tacked on back to the employees," he said.
Hynes, of Stash, said that members of the Seattle industry association Cannabis Organization of Retail Establishments (CORE) have floated the idea of buying health care cooperatively to bring the price within reach but a firm plan had yet to materialize.
In the meantime, ganjapreneurs are just trying to do right by their employees. "When I opened this company, I made myself a promise to do the opposite of all the crappy jobs I ever had," said Kunkel. "At the top of that was to pay people what they were worth and stay the hell away from minimum wage." Sounds like a good plan to me.