PORTLAND — About 25 people showed up at Longfellow Square on Saturday to protest working conditions at Wellness Connection of Maine, the state’s largest medical marijuana dispensary group.
The protesters said the organization is ignoring their concerns about working conditions and their efforts to unionize. The Portland protest followed a similar event Friday in Hallowell.
“Too many workers are out sick,” said Barbara Heap, a production assistant at the group’s Auburn cultivation center.
The Wellness Connection of Maine is a nonprofit that operates four dispensaries – in Portland, Brewer, Thomaston and Hallowell – and serves about 2,400 patients. It employs about 40 people.
The roughly hourlong protest, which included leafleting passers-by, followed months of controversy at the dispensary provider.
The workers staged a brief walkout in February. Following an employee complaint, the Department of Health and Human Resources conducted an investigation in March that found 20 violations of state law and policy, including the organization’s use of pesticides on its marijuana plants.
The state reached a consent agreement with the organization that calls for weekly status reports and frequent inspections.
Some of the dispensary group’s employees have joined the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Evan Yeats, a union representative, said it is the country’s largest union that includes medical marijuana workers but said he doesn’t know how many marijuana workers are members.
Unionized employees say Wellness Connection has refused to recognize the union while others say unionized employees are not in the majority.
Kate Tozier, manager of the Portland dispensary, is one of those who said the pro-union employees are in the minority.
Tozier, who observed Saturday’s protest, said she saw only four employees among the group, while the rest of those taking part were union representatives.
Tozier said the industry is new and she believes it needs flexibility to grow. The nonprofit’s management, she said, has been responsive to problems pointed out by employees.
Patricia Rosi, chief operating officer of Wellness Connection, said she is not against employees unionizing but she wants to make sure the majority of workers support the concept. She said the organization has grown from five to 40 employees in the past year.
She said the group is committed to taking care of its employees. Wages start at $12 an hour and the organization provides employees health insurance and a 401(k) plan, Rosi said.
“Whether we have a union or not will not keep us from our mission, which is providing quality medical marijuana to our patients,” Rosi said.
Protesters included former Wellness Connection patients who say they have stopped using the dispensary because of the company’s use of pesticides. Brian Lee of Sebago said he stopped using Wellness Connection marijuana and is now looking for a new dispensary.
“We know it is not safe,” said Lee.
Brittany Wallingford of Auburn, who has worked at Wellness Connection’s cultivation center for three months, said employees are becoming sick due to exposure to mold that grows in the marijuana plants.
Wallingford alleges that about one-fourth of the company’s employees are sick.
Matt Schlombohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said Wellness Connection had been forcing employees to choose between breaking the law or jeopardizing their jobs.
Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland, a member of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said he supports the protesting workers.
“They want to provide high-quality medicine and make a good living,” Stuckey said.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this story.
Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: