HALLOWELL — Employees at Maine’s largest medical marijuana dispensary group have unionized, reportedly against management’s wishes, days after a state investigation set off by workers found the company violated state laws and rules.

In her first interview with the MaineToday Media since findings were announced, Becky DeKeuster, Wellness Connection of Maine’s executive director, wouldn’t directly answer questions on whether the company would recognize the union.

“With a union or without a union, WCM is going to continue to improve,” she repeated, while saying her workforce is free to negotiate.

But, DeKeuster said, the company is hearing the concerns of the employees that had it investigated.

She attributed much of the employee frustration to fast company growth, saying about a year ago the company had 12 employees. Wellness Connection of Maine now employs 41 people.

“We’re dealing with a lot of challenges,” she said. “The end result is going to be improved conditions for them, for our patients, for everybody.”

On Monday, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services released the investigation’s findings, saying Wellness Connection violated 20 state laws and rules, most notably rules surrounding pesticide application. The state said nine types of pesticides were used over four growing cycles, roughly since mid-2012.

DeKeuster said since Wellness Connection has been growing marijuana, plants have been treated with natural pesticides, such as certain types of vegetable oils. She said she didn’t know when certain pesticides were introduced.

But a union official, Dan Rush, national director of the union’s Medical Cannabis and Hemp Division Campaign, which he said has thousands of members in six states, said employees approached him after a brief employee walkout in February, which DeKeuster confirmed and said took place in its Auburn growing facility.

That was the lead-up to the state investigation, which DHHS said began March 4 at the Auburn location after an employee complaint. Later, more employees complained, the state has said.

The labor unrest at Wellness Connection, which operates dispensaries serving approximately 2,400 patients from locations in Portland, Hallowell, Thomaston and Brewer, was announced in a Friday email to the Portland Press Herald by Barbara Heap, an employee at the company’s Auburn cultivation center.

In the email, Heap said “a majority” of Wellness Connection employees have joined the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, a national group boasting 1.3 million members, mostly working in meat and food-packing industries.

Heap said she and others attempted to address state violations with management before reporting them to regulators, but “managers refused to answer our questions or address our concerns.” 

“For our employer to put profits and convenience over patient safety and health is not only wrong, but also morally reprehensible,” Heap, the Wellness Connection employee, wrote in an email.

State documents show that DeKeuster told regulators “staff has voiced their concern about the use of pesticides” and “patients are not being made aware of such use on their medicine.”

In an interview, DeKeuster acknowledged that many employees “felt like they weren’t being heard.”

It hasn’t been long since the state started regulating pesticides in medical marijuana. Maine banned pesticide use late last year for the first time since state management of the program started.

The definition of pesticide is broad, including even natural substances, the state has said.

In an email, DHHS spokesman John Martins said the rule was changed because there was “no reference to pesticides in the original rules as there was no cultivation or growing when the program was launched.”

DeKeuster said treatment of plants with certain pesticides has been an “unspoken” rule of the industry in many cases, and Maine should carve out a less narrow definition of “pesticide” for growers to abide by, she said. Until then, she said the group will abide by Maine’s standard.

“This is a great opportunity for us to establish standards,” DeKeuster said.

But aside from standards, the organizational problem is deeper, according to the union.

“Employees were not all comfortable with using pesticides,” Rush said. “All they want is their voices to be heard.”

But Rush said he met on Monday with Wellness Connection management in Augusta, and they denied giving the union voluntary recognition, as “it was in their interests to not enter into neutrality or voluntary recognition with the union.”

He said he thinks he has a majority of the company’s employees. DeKeuster declined to discuss the status of union negotiations, while both said they were open to having more meetings.

“Workers are coming to us to find dignity and respect in the workplace,” Rush said. “Our goal is to deliver the same respect and dignity to our medical cannabis industry” as other workers in the union.

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