Tag Archives: fire

Heightened EPL Exposure Hits Cannabis Businesses When Laying Off Employees

By Patrick Ryder
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Even though it’s valued at more than $15 billion, the burgeoning global cannabis industry has experienced recent layoffs. By the end of 2019, more than 600 cannabis employees got pink slips. Industry experts expect more of the same in 2020 as investigations, lawsuits and slumping valuations plague the industry.

Unfortunately for employers, layoffs are where the issues begin – not end. Especially for those without established policies and procedures. Without rules and regulations governing employment practices, business owners and operators are at considerable risk.

The 11 states where cannabis is legal for recreational use and the 33 where it’s medically legal tend to have more onerous employment practices liability (EPL) laws, where liability is often assumed by the employer for mistakes like poorly handled layoffs. This is further compounded by the fact that HR departments at fledgling cannabis companies tend to be small or non-existent and often ill prepared to deal with the legalities that come with termination.

Ensuring the right practices are in place prior to any layoffs is critical. Is your company facing employee terminations? Are you knowledgeable of how to handle it? Consider the following best practices:

  1. Document problematic employees. Create a folder for each employee and document the details when problematic situations escalate to the point they need to be addressed. Should employees of a protected class engage in an EEOC, class action or personal lawsuit after they’re terminated, you’ll need this documentation to support your actions.
  2. Create a formal termination procedure. Make sure the procedure includes well-thought-out details of your review process, including how employee performance is evaluated and what happens when those standards aren’t met. Spell out which behaviors are grounds for dismissal. When talking to the employee about a termination, have another employee or manager in the room to avoid claims of mishandling later on, typically their direct manager, someone from HR or your in-house attorney. Determine how the distribution of final compensation such as medical insurance or PTO will be handled so you’re prepared to answer those questions. These procedures should be spelled out in an employee handbook given to all at onboarding so there are no surprises.
  3. Retain a qualified EPL attorney. Create a relationship with a qualified EPL attorney (not your cousin who does divorce law) to help you set policies and procedures initially and to consult with when a unique or particularly difficult situation arises.
  4. Get the right EPL coverage. An EPL policy will defend a business from claims of breach of employment contraction, negligent evaluation, failure to employ or promote, wrongful termination, deprivation of career opportunity and mismanagement of employee benefits plans. Your EPL coverage will be determined by your location, clientele, employee profile and what you see as your biggest risks. When discussing the policy with your broker, weigh the following considerations to EPL coverage:
    • Reimbursement coverage versus pay on behalf. Should the policy pay your defense costs directly, or will you lay out the money and they’ll reimburse?
    • The definition of a claim and wrongful act will be different for each EPL policy.
    • EPL policy’s limit structure. Do you want defense limits to be outside or inside the coverage?

Having to lay off employees is never an easy choice for an employer. Make sure you and your business do everything right before and during the process so that the aftermath isn’t even more difficult, filled with lawsuits and liability claims.

Best Practices for Workforce Reduction

By Conor Dale
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Due to anticipated contractions in the industry and concerns over a potential nationwide recession, cannabis industry employers may be planning on implementing large scale reduction in force (RIF) layoffs or employee furloughs to reduce payroll. While RIFs can provide business-saving cost reductions, they can subject an employer to substantial potential legal liability, including but not limited to class action lawsuits and enforcement actions from state and federal agencies. Understanding and addressing potential legal pitfalls before implementing an RIF can help in materially limiting an employer’s potential legal exposure.

Employers should first consider potential cost saving alternatives to implementing mass employee layoffs. Such steps can include reducing the salaries and/or work hours for current employees, temporarily freezing company operations for limited periods, or placing non-critical positions in a limited paid leave of absence at reduced wages. While each of these steps bear their own risks, they may assist in avoiding mass employee layoffs.

Next, federal law and the laws of certain states require employers to provide written notice to employees and local governments at least 60 days before implementing mass layoffs. For example, under the federal Work Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, an employer must generally provide a written notice to employees regarding an impending reduction in force when it: (1) permanently or temporarily shuts down a worksite which results in an employment loss of 50 or more employees; (2) lays off between 50 to 499 workers at a single worksite when such layoffs constitute at least 33% of the employer’s workforce; (3) lays off at least 500 employees within a 30 day period; (4) implements a wide scale temporary layoff of more than 6 months; or (5) reduces the work hours of 50 or more employees by at least 50% during each month of any six month period. Please note that the WARN Act aggregates layoffs over 90 days; thus, an employer conducting a series of smaller layoffs may still need to provide employees with a WARN notice. An employer who fails to provide a required notice could owe each impacted employee up to 60 days’ back pay, which includes but is not limited to the cost of potential employment benefits.

An employer should also take steps to limit potential discrimination claims based on an RIF. It is illegal for an employer to select an employee for layoff because of their protected characteristics, including but not limited to race, religion, gender or age. The primary defense to such a discrimination lawsuit is to prove the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the layoff decision. As a result, employers are strongly encouraged to create a formal RIF plan which documents the legitimate reasons for layoff decisions. The RIF plan should expressly articulate the cost-saving grounds for the RIF and the goals to be achieved by its implementation; these grounds and goals should be the sole reason for any subsequent layoff decision.

Employers are strongly encouraged to consult with legal counsel before implementing an RIFFor example, an employer should identify all necessary positions and employee skills needed for a company’s current and future business operations in order to identify non-essential positions that may be subject to position eliminations or layoffs. Similarly, employers should create standards to select employees for a RIF when multiple employees hold the same or similar jobs. These standards commonly include considering employees’ education, skills, unique knowledge, previous job performance and seniority. Most importantly, an employer should make actual layoff decisions that are consistent with its articulated RIF plans; under both state and federal law, a termination decision that is inconsistent with or contradictory to the articulated reasons for a layoff decision may provide an employee with considerable evidence that that his or her termination was at least partly motivated by their protected characteristics.

Even when making and implementing a reduction in force plan based solely on legitimate business reasons, employers must be aware of the adverse impact those decisions have on certain groups of employees. It is illegal for an employer to implement policies and practices that are facially neutral but have an unintentional discriminatory effect on protected groups of employees if those policies and practices are not job related or required by business necessity. Before implementing an RIF, employers are strongly encouraged to perform a statistical analysis of the protected characteristics of individuals selected for layoffs to determine whether they are being selected for layoffs at a significantly higher rate than other employees. If an employer does discover that certain groups are being selected for layoffs at a disproportionate rate, an employer should review its layoff decisions to confirm that these decisions are in fact required by business necessity.

Finally, employers will commonly provide severance packages to laid off employees to assist in their transition to other employment. A key factor in these packages is an employee providing an employer with a full release of potential legal claims in exchange for a severance payment. Employers are strongly encouraged to ensure that they obtain full and complete legal releases in any severance agreements they provide. For example, under California law, an employee can only provide a full and complete release of legal claims when a separation agreement specifically cites and waives a specific provision of California’s civil code. Additionally, an employer cannot obtain a legal release of federal age discrimination claims when it offers a separation package to multiple employees over 40 during an RIF program unless it provides specific information regarding the job positions and ages of employees who were and were not selected for layoffs.

While a reduction in force layoff program may help ensure a business’ survival, employers are strongly encouraged to consult with legal counsel before implementing an RIF to detect and avoid potential future legal claims.

Matt Engle
Soapbox

Insurers Must Play Catch-Up to Meet Cannabis Industry Needs

By Matt Engle
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Matt Engle

As the cannabis industry continues to grow, demand for insurance products is also increasing. While insurers have been cautious about entering a market that carries the stigma of a Schedule I drug, the cannabis industry is clamoring for insurance coverage options tailored to meet the needs of key players— distributors, growers, processors and retail dispensaries.

The escalating need for insurance products tailored to these cannabis business sectors has not expedited an increase in coverage offerings. The slow entry of insurance carriers into the cannabis sector can be tied to a reluctance to insure an industry with emerging and often unknown risks. This will begin to change as more information becomes available on what loss ratio trends look like in the cannabis industry.

For now, there is a wait-and-see stance held by insurance carriers. This presents a major concern for cannabis-related businesses that are subject to risk at every stage of the supply chain, with particular exposure for theft, general liability, crop loss, and product liability.some degree of crime and theft coverage is needed for these enterprises to help manage the risks associated with a cash-based business

Theft

For cannabis companies, the use of paper currency is a huge part of their risk exposure. Federal banking regulations have limited these businesses to dealing mostly in cash, which makes them a prime target for crime and fraud. Currently, only one carrier will insure coverage for cash and theft risk, and the policy is limited to $1 million for most risks. This is inadequate coverage since many operators have more than that amount on-site.

In states with legislation legalizing cannabis, the cannabis sector will be able to move away from operating in cash if Congress passes the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would protect financial institutions from liability for federal prosecution that could arise from servicing cannabis-related businesses authorized under state law. Until banking regulations give the cannabis industry the ability to operate as legitimate businesses with the stability and safety that would deter criminal activity, some degree of crime and theft coverage is needed for these enterprises to help manage the risks associated with a cash-based business.

General Liability

Cannabis-related businesses need the same general liability coverage as other businesses to protect their premises and operations from lawsuits involving public contact. However, standard general liability policies—which exclude Schedule I substances from coverage—were not created with cannabis businesses in mind. It is still difficult for these businesses to obtain adequate general liability as a result of the legal uncertainty associated with the industry.

Product Liability

Product liability exposures for cannabis businesses encompass a wide range of areas, including edibles, vaporizers, pesticides, mold/fungus, misrepresentation, label claims, breach of warranty, deceptive practices, and failure to warn.

A major area of exposure concerns accidents resulting from impairment. A cannabis cultivator, processor, distributor, or retailer potentially may be considered liable in the event a product defect results in injury after reasonable use or when label defects fail to warn users that a product may have psychoactive effects.

Another area of risk exposure involves products that contain THC, the psychoactive compound that gives cannabis users a high. As the number of THC-containing products such as edibles and tinctures increases, so does the potential exposure to product liability claims for manufacturers and retailers.

The California Cannabis Track-and-Trace (CCTT) system also has implications for product liability. The CCTT is a statewide system used to record the inventory and movement of cannabis and related products through the commercial supply chain. All state cannabis licensees, including those with licenses for cultivation, manufacturing, retail, distribution, testing labs and microbusinesses, are required to use this system. The product liability impact lies in its capacity to determine responsibility along the supply chain from seed to sale.

For example, if a plastic vape pen explodes, a product liability lawsuit could have repercussions for many touch points across the supply chain beyond the manufacturer of the pen–all of which can be identified through CCTT. Entities that touch cannabis products such as soil suppliers or delivery persons also have product liability risk exposure. Personal injury attorneys can find incident-related parties easily and determine liability. This makes it particularly important to add these parties to the policy as additional insureds to help reduce claims exposure.

Crop Loss

Another area of concern for risk exposure is crop loss. Crop insurance is generally hard to obtain due to the significantly different nature of cannabis crops compared to traditional crops like corn or soybeans.

Fires in Sonoma County devastated cannabis crops in Northern California back in 2017.

An indoor crop insurance policy covers cultivators when there is loss resulting from threats such as fire, theft, and sprinkler leakage. However, crop insurance policies generally do not cover losses resulting from mold, rot, disease, changes in climate, or fertilization issues. Many growers forgo this coverage and instead elect to absorb losses and regrow their crops.

Outdoor crop coverage is generally unavailable, or the cost is prohibitive. Any potential for writing outdoor crop insurance for the cannabis industry essentially disappeared as a result of the recent wildfires in California. These devastating fires highlighted the pressing need for property damage and business interruption coverage for growers and dispensaries and other downstream businesses whose supply was disrupted. This lack of available outdoor crop insurance is one of the more notable gaps in available cannabis business insurance coverage.

While cannabis businesses operating in states that have legalized medical and/or recreational cannabis use have challenges getting adequate insurance coverage, there is some good news on the insurance front for those in California. Last year, California’s insurance commissioner announced approval for carriers to offer insurance coverage specifically to cannabis businesses. The state also approved a cannabis business-owners policy (CannaBOP) program that provides a package policy containing both property and liability coverage for qualifying dispensaries, distributors, manufacturers, processors and storage facilities. Colorado is on the verge of being the second state to approve its version of a CannaBOP program.

While more insurance carriers are beginning to write cannabis coverage, the limited insurance options and policies with restrictive plans currently offered todaydo not meet the needs of the cannabis industry. Insurers must catch up to the coverage requirements of this sector by offering more options tailored to growers, retail dispensaries, processors and distributors with better terms and better pricing.

NCIA, CCIA Host Fundraiser For Those Impacted By CA Fires

By Aaron G. Biros
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On Monday, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) sent an email announcing their Cannabis Industry Fire Relief Fundraiser in Santa Rosa, CA on November 6th. Co-hosted by the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA), the fundraiser will take place 6:30-9:00 p.m. at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek (170 Railroad St, Santa Rosa, CA 95401). All proceeds from the event will go to the Redwood Credit Union’s North Bay Fire Relief Fund.

According to the announcement email sent on Monday, the North Bay Fire Relief Fund, established in partnership with California State Senator Mike McGuire and The Press Democrat, provides financial support for relief efforts to displaced victims of the fires. Representatives of the fund will also be on hand at the event to take cash donations directly.

The fundraiser will have sponsorship opportunities and host committee sponsoring for companies looking to participate. All of the money raised from sponsorships will be donated to the same relief fund.

According to Lindsay Robinson, executive director of CCIA, this is an opportunity for the cannabis industry to help the community rebuild. “The devastation caused by the Northern California wildfires are unmeasurable, yet the sense of community and humanity displayed in this tragedy reminds all of us of our commonalities and not our differences,” says Robinson.  “I’m hopeful this event will raise much needed funds to help our friends and neighbors rebuild. The cannabis industry is here to help.”

When we reported on the wildfires impacting communities and cannabis businesses, we provided a link to a fundraising campaign specifically designed to help victims in the cannabis community. Citing federal laws prohibiting dealing with controlled substances, the payment processor of that campaign, WePay, refused to actually give the $13,000 raised to the victims. This is just one reason why this NCIA & CCIA fundraiser is so important. This gives those in the cannabis industry who want to help an effective route to do so, knowing their money will immediately go to help the victims.

Hezekiah Allen, a confirmed speaker at the November 6th fundraiser and executive director of the California Growers Association told reporters last week they are hopeful that the $13,000 will actually be given to the victims, but are unsure if that’ll be the case. “We’ve got folks who have needs who we would like to start like to start helping,” says Allen. “We’re still hopeful that they’ll process those payments. We’re waiting with fingers crossed.”

For tickets, sponsorship opportunities and more information please go online and register for the event or make a donation here.

Wildfires Devastating Californian Cannabis Farms

By Aaron G. Biros
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Earlier this week, a series of wildfires began ripping through Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, causing mandatory evacuations, rampant property damage and taking the lives of at least 17 people. Extraordinarily high wind gusts up to 50 mph have swept through communities in Northern California, leaving complete destruction in its wake.

According to The Washington Post, flames have reached more than 170,000 acres since Sunday when the fires began. The cause is still unknown. The President declared a state of emergency, allowing emergency funds to go to clearing debris and supplies for shelters. Nearly 25,000 have fled their homes to shelters in seven counties.

NASA’s Aqua satellite took this picture of the smoke over California on Tuesday
Photo: NASA, Flickr

The area is well known for its wine production, an industry that is taking a very hard hit from the wildfires. It is also known as a productive cannabis growing area as part of the Emerald Triangle, synonymous with high quality, outdoor cannabis farms. A number of cannabis farms have been severely impacted by the flames.

We’ve received numerous reports of growers fleeing their homes and farms to get to safety. The LA Times reported that at least seven cannabis farms have been engulfed in flames. According to Amanda Reiman, vice president of community relations at Flow Kana, a distribution company working with cannabis farmers in the Emerald Triangle, they are in active evacuations and the fire is only about 5% contained. “It will be a while before we know the extent of the damage to our farmers and our community,” says Reiman. “The Emerald Triangle is a large region and central Mendocino county contributes a lot. Our farmers are resilient, but right now we are all focused on safety and vigilance.”

Kristin Nevedal, founder and chair of International Cannabis Farmers Association (ICFA), says she’s received information about cannabis farms being destroyed. “The true extent of damage to farms, lives and communities won’t unfortunately be known for sometime,” says Nevedal. “There is no rain in the immediate forecast, conditions are dry and we have had high winds.” Nevedal says the damage goes way beyond just a business setback. “Traditional sun grown cannabis farmers often live on the property they farm, so for many, a forest fire can mean not only loosing the crop but also their homes,” says Nevedal. “While there are fire insurance policies available for houses and outbuildings, the operational infrastructure components and the crop itself can be challenging or impossible to insure.” She says things like water storage tanks, water supply systems, irrigation systems, fences, water pumps and solar systems might not be insured at all. “Law enforcement in Mendocino is coordinating, to the best of their ability, with evacuees who have fire damage or have been evacuated, to insure public safety while assisting folks with repopulating their property and/or assessing the status of fire damage,” says Nevedal.

Because California is expected to implement their full adult use legalization in early 2018, the wildfires are particularly devastating to businesses that have been gearing up for the new market. To make matters worse, the fires came during peak harvest time, while growers are cutting plants and preparing their entire crops for distribution and sale.

Over 5,000 residents have evacuated in Sonoma County

Devika Maskey, founder of TSO Sonoma, a cannabis farm in Sonoma County, could only speak briefly because her farm is under evacuation orders. “We are getting all personnel off the hill to safety,” says Maskey. “The wind will be picking up to 40-50mph again later today.” Those high winds have the potential to spread the flames quicker, destroying more property and putting more lives at risk.

Maskey says the wildfires are having an enormous impact on their crops this year. “We do not have enough time to harvest the outdoor crop,” says Maskey. “So far there has been clear skies, but if the fire gets closer it can taint the buds with a smoky smell and flavor.”

Maskey says she has a number of friends in the cannabis space that have been severely affected already. “We do have a few friends that have lost their farms already,” says Maskey. “About a dozen other friends and family members who have lost their homes.” In Sonoma County alone, 5,000 people have been evacuated to shelters as of Wednesday morning, reports The Washington Post. “This has been a devastating week for many people and businesses,” says Maskey. “Our priority is getting everyone off the hill and to safety.” If you want to help the cannabis growers impacted by the fires, Maskey recommends donating to this growers relief fund or donate to the North Bay Fire Relief fund here. 

This list of charities, including GoFundMe pages, food banks and shelters in need of supplies and donations, is also a helpful resource to figure out how you can help those impacted by the fires.