After a year on the front line, Jason Zvokel traded his 15-year career as a Walgreens pharmacist for a different kind of pharmacy: a marijuana dispensary.

Now, instead of administering vaccines and filling prescriptions, he helps clients understand concentrates, tablets and lozenges. His pay is 5% lower, he says, but the hours are more manageable.

“I’m so much happier,” said Zvokel, 46, who has worked in retail since the age of 18. “For the first time in years, I’m not unhappy when I come home from work.”

Cannabis industry hits pandemic peak: dispensaries and marijuana grow facilities – deemed ‘essential’ by many states at the onset of the coronavirus crisis – have become an early refuge for retail workers and catering who had been on leave or dismissed. The industry continued to grow, creating nearly 80,000 jobs in 2020, more than double the previous year, according to data from the Leafly Jobs report, produced in partnership with Whitney Economics.

An estimated 321,000 Americans are now working in the industry, a 32% increase from last year, according to the report, making legal marijuana one of the fastest growing industries in the country. In other words: The United States now has more legal cannabis workers than dentists, paramedics, or electrical engineers.

Many Americans have reassessed their jobs and career prospects as the pandemic reshaped their social and professional lives. Retail workers in particular are quitting at record rates, looking for consistent hours, better benefits, and more advancement opportunities, which many say they find in the legal cannabis industry.

“There has been a dramatic shift from retail and restaurant workers to cannabis,” said Kara Bradford, managing director of cannabis recruiting firm Viridian Staffing, where she responded to up to 500 applications for an opening. “It feels like a booming industry that’s fun and interesting, with plenty of opportunities to grow quickly. “

Hourly wages in dispensaries, she said, range from $ 12 to $ 15, which matches most retail and warehouse jobs. But given the newness of the industry, entry-level workers can often progress in less than a year to more skilled positions, she said.

The current labor shortage has put pressure on traditional employers – especially in the 18 states and the District of Columbia where recreational use of marijuana is legal – to relax drug testing requirements. Amazon, the country’s second-largest private employer, said in June it would stop screening employees for cannabis use and support federal legislation to legalize marijuana. A number of other employers, including retailers, restaurants, and city governments, have also dropped these requirements in an attempt to attract workers to a job market where job openings outnumber the number of unemployed Americans by 10.9 to 8.4 million.

Workers’ rights groups are pushing for broader unionization in the cannabis industry, calling it a critical time to create well-paying jobs with proper protections. With the right policies, they say, the industry could become a pipeline to middle-class jobs, much like the manufacturing industry.

“It is so rare to have the opportunity to shape an industry from its inception,” said David Cooper, analyst for the Economic Policy Institute, a left-wing think tank. “There is an urgent need to establish safeguards now, for well-paying middle-class jobs, before cannabis is federally legalized and really takes off. Otherwise, those jobs could quickly start to resemble existing jobs in retail and agriculture, which are often the worst jobs in the economy. “

Legalization efforts have swept the country since California began allowing the use of medical marijuana 25 years ago. Most states in the US now allow its medical use, and a growing number are fully legalizing the drug. (The last to do so this summer were New Mexico, Connecticut and Virginia.) As a result, business is skyrocketing. Sales of legal cannabis increased nearly 60% to $ 19 billion last year and are expected to reach $ 41 billion by 2025, according to the Wall Street research firm Cowen.

For Zvokel, the cannabis industry became a respite from the stress of working for a national retail chain, where his 10-hour shifts often stretched to 12 or 1 p.m. When he left in April, he was administering 30 to 40 coronavirus vaccines a day, while trying to keep up with his usual duties. Plus, he says, there was constant pressure to increase sales and fill prescriptions as quickly as possible. As a salaried manager, he was not given overtime and says it had been at least four years since he got a raise.

“By not making progress, I felt like I was essentially going backwards,” said Zvokel, now one of the 10,000 marijuana workers represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. “People were giving up left and right and I was being asked to do a lot more than I could physically.”

Fraser Engerman, a spokesperson for Walgreens, said the company had increased hiring during the pandemic and was increasing its budget for pharmacy operations and training.

“We are committed to increasing support for [our pharmacists] so they can continue to provide excellent patient care, ”he said.

Five months after starting his new job, Zvokel says things are different: the dispensary is recruiting quickly and there is a sense of camaraderie among his colleagues. Labor economists say the industry was defined by the desire to create favorable working conditions, both to attract employees and to gain broader legitimacy. Many employers also feel added pressure to treat workers well, given that growing and selling marijuana is still federally illegal, said Raymond Hogler, a professor at Colorado State University who studies labor relations. marijuana.

“There are a lot of problems with working with marijuana: dust, safety issues, the dangers of harvesting the plant itself,” he said. “And, frankly, there is added pressure to treat workers well because the industry wants to show that they have good, solid jobs.”

Brianna Price recently quit a job as a grocery storekeeper to become a “budtender” – an industry term for a salesperson – in a dispensary. She was promoted three times during the year she worked there and now oversees all purchasing and a team of nine.

“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” said Price, 31, of Midland, Michigan, who worked as a paralegal for eight years before being fired at the start of the pandemic. She took a part-time job at the Aldi supermarket chain, but says it paid so little she had to move back to live with her parents. There were other downsides as well: His shifts often started at 5 a.m. and sometimes consisted of staying outside, wiping shopping carts for hours.

“I really wanted to take my time during COVID to re-evaluate my life and change careers,” she said.

At the Hempire Collective in Loomis, Michigan, where she works, sales have more than doubled in the past year, to around $ 500,000 per month, according to co-owner Mario Porter. He has expanded his clinic staff from seven to twelve and plans to hire more this year. Many of his new hires, he said, come from retail jobs they left during the pandemic.

He has dozens of applications on his desk and hundreds more that have been submitted online.

“This summer has been exceptional,” he said. “The majority of my employees come from retail because they understand the most important part of this job: listening to customers and meeting their needs.

In South Bend, Indiana, Ashlyn Marshall, 28, recently quit her full-time job at an RV manufacturer to work part-time at a marijuana dispensary. His struggles with anxiety during the pandemic made him realize that “a work-life balance meant more to me than money.” She earns $ 14.50 an hour, compared to $ 16 at her last job.

“I was insulted by clients every day, while doing the work of three people,” she said. “It was just a complete burnout.”

In her new role, she says the tone among managers and employees is much calmer and more friendly.

“Management is much more human. If I make a mistake and apologize, the general mood is, “It’s okay, we all make mistakes. Let’s fix this together. ‘ I’ve never had this before.

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