OpEd: NY’s Cannabis Industry Should Be SAFE for Workers

New York First Marijuana Crop
Rich Morris of Toadflax Nursery helps to plant marijuana seedlings at Homestead Farms and Ranch in Clifton Park, N.Y., Friday, June 3, 2022. In a novel move, New York gave 203 hemp growers first shot at cultivating marijuana destined for legal sales, which could start by the end of the year. Big indoor growers are expected to join later.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

OpEd: NY’s Cannabis Industry Should Be SAFE for Workers

When trying to get off the ground, businesses in all sectors experience trials and setbacks. Those looking to enter the cannabis space are no different. However, unlike other businesses, those working in cannabis find themselves unable to access capital and other essential financial services, leaving them without key economic support and potentially vulnerable to violent crime. As the legal adult-use cannabis program begins to come online in New York, steps must be taken to ensure that workers in the industry are set up to build a career and succeed. 

One piece of federal legislation, the SAFE Banking Act, would help rectify this. By preventing financial institutions from withholding key financial services from cannabis businesses, this legislation would create safe and prosperous working conditions and help New York’s cannabis industry thrive. 

Without access to traditional banking and financial services, cannabis businesses are forced to operate as cash-only businesses, presenting numerous economic and safety concerns. 

These businesses are forced to have large amounts of cash on hand, putting targets on the backs of workers and customers alike. We have seen several instances across the country where cannabis dispensaries experienced violent robberies. With SAFE Banking, federal restrictions on providing financial services to the legalized cannabis industry would lift; and with access to conventional banking and payroll services, would allow these storefronts to operate in payment methods other than just cash. Cannabis workers, like every other business venture, deserve the same right to work in safe conditions. 

Along with the notable public safety challenges, workers in the industry also face significant financial setbacks. Though there are several local banks and financial institutions that may be willing to provide their services to cannabis employees, others do not, leaving many workers in the industry find themselves struggling to find access to personal banking services. This leaves them unable to put away money for a child’s college tuition, take out car or student loans, or even secure credit and debit cards. Cannabis employees struggle in purchasing homes and must find alternatives to traditional banking to do so. This includes finding a co-signer and co-borrower, paying in cash, or finding alternative credit unions. However, none of these alternatives are a guarantee, and means workers may find themselves having to pay higher rates due to their work in a fully legal profession.

Lacking access to traditional banking services also limits a cannabis worker’s ability to set themselves up for a secure retirement. Many struggle to identify an institution that will allow them to roll over their 401(k)s when they transition into the industry. For those unionized workers, federal restrictions prevent them for being able to collectively bargain to participate in their union’s defined benefit plans.  For businesses who do not have access to conventional payroll processing systems that give workers the security in knowing that deductions like Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Insurance, are being properly funded – this inability to access union benefits is even more harmful.

If SAFE Banking passes, it would be federally prohibited to refuse financial services to a worker just because they are employed in the cannabis industry, giving them an equal playing field with workers in other industries, opening opportunities for them to grow and invest in their future. 

While the SAFE Banking Act cleared the House of Representatives earlier this year, it remains held up in the Senate. We are calling on Senate Majority Leader Schumer to act on SAFE Banking. Every day without the SAFE Banking Act in place is another day cannabis workers in New York and across the country are unable to access essential financial services, retirement savings, and are at risk of an unnecessarily unsafe workplace.

All workers deserve to work in safe environments and utilize basic and critical financial services. Passing the SAFE Banking Act would make both of these a reality for workers in New York’s cannabis industry. Senator Schumer, it’s time to help secure a safe, stable future for cannabis workers in New York.

John R. Durso is President, Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW and Long Island Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.