A proposed class action lawsuit by so-called “trimmigrants” against a California cannabis company alleges that workers were compelled to work extended hours in difficult conditions without meal breaks, overtime pay or an accurate accounting of their wages.
The workers, whose duties included growing, harvesting, bucking and hanging marijuana plants to dry before placing them in large freezers for shipment, were largely young immigrants, often undocumented. This, they say, was used by their employers to exploit them.
The 11-count complaint against the marijuana farming company asserts the company:
- Compelled workers to toil 7-days-a-week for 12 hours daily;
- Refused to provide rest or meal breaks, as required by law;
- Declined to reimburse employees for work-related expenses such as travel and meals;
- Provided workers with a flat $15-and-hour rate of compensation, no matter how many hours they worked;
- Failed to keep reliable, accurate records of worker hours, in violation of FLSA’s mandates on proper record-keeping.
Our Los Angeles employment attorneys know that difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions have been reported by workers at some cannabis farms, with some reporting high rates of sexual harassment and even sexual assault. These stories are not new, but the latest case may have additional fuel, thanks to a recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeal for the 10th Circuit in Kenney v. Helix TCS.
In Kenney, a former security guard at several Colorado cannabis companies alleged he was misclassified as an independent contractor, as opposed to an employee, so that the company could sidestep its responsibility to pay overtime wages. Defendant argued that because the worker’s employment violated the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, he was not entitled to relief under the FLSA.
The 10th Circuit ruled that employers aren’t exempt from compliance with federal labor laws just because they are also in violation of other federal statutes. The court didn’t weigh the merits of the labor standards violations claims, instead ruling only that workers like the plaintiff in that case weren’t shut out of FLSA protections.
Cases like this are likely to continue cropping up in California’s legal marijuana industry, where regulations pertaining to consumer rights and safety have excelled, but labor law protections are less clearly defined.
Although the Kenney case dealt specifically with wage-and-hour law violations by cannabis companies, it’s possible that the case of Denning v. Loud Buddah, LLC could dive into territory not previously explored, such as cannabis worker rights to a safe work place. Future cases are likely to touch on prohibition of sex, race and national origin discrimination under Title VII, as well as certain state protections, such as the “ban-the-box” prohibition that bars companies from inquiring about the criminal convictions of new hires.
It’s worth noting that both California and U.S. labor laws extend broad protections to workers, but both have certain exemptions for employees in certain agricultural roles. That could be an issue that arises in this case that did not in the Kenney case.
If you are a cannabis company employee who believes your employer is not paying you fairly or is violating other state or federal labor laws, it’s imperative to speak with a dedicated employment attorney who can determine the viability of your case.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.
Denning v. Loud Buddah, LLC, Nov. 21, 2019, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California