Member Blog: Navigating the 2023 Cannabis Harvest Season: Balancing Labor Costs, Worker Safety, and Automation

As we enter the Fall cannabis harvest season of 2023, several dynamics impacting human resources in the cannabis industry have shifted considerably. Between escalating labor costs and the imperatives of ensuring safer working conditions, the landscape for cannabis industry employers isn’t what it used to be.

Here are three recommendations to help you navigate workflows this harvest season:

1. Proactive Planning Amidst Rising Labor Costs:

Labor costs in the cannabis industry have seen a sharp surge in recent months. Where we saw hourly rates for harvest workers in years past at $12-$20/hour, this range is now closer to $14-$25/hour, depending on the market. This uptick isn’t just a reflection of rising expectations among industry employers, but also a clearer sense of the safety risks involved, what experienced cannabis harvest workers are willing to work for, and the number of such workers who have left the industry entirely in recent months. For cannabis companies, this necessitates early planning. Human resources departments need to remain agile to adapt to these changes in the labor market.

To address this, a multi-pronged strategy is best. If you’re still finalizing your harvest approach, consider a blend of hiring seasonal talent while also investing in some automation. By leveraging the unique strengths of both seasonal and full-time workers, along with automation, you can tap into hands-on expertise, while enjoying the benefits of flexibility and cost-effectiveness.

2. Prioritizing Worker Safety:

The increasing global temperatures, a distressing trend for many cultivators, has implications for outdoor and greenhouse workers. HR professionals need to be proactive in revising Safety protocols to protect workers from the adverse effects of heat. Regular breaks, shaded areas, hydration stations, and training on recognizing heat-related illnesses are no longer optional. In certain areas, you may want to consider having your crew come in earlier than usual, before the weather heats up, as long as you have adequate lighting in place so the team can work safely.

If you operate in remote locations or places farther from urban centers, it becomes even more crucial to ensure nearby amenities and facilities are optimized for the warmer climate. This includes considering air-conditioned accommodations, cool showers, or providing cooling stations on-site. Keep a list of essential nearby services, and ensure they cater to the needs of workers battling higher temperatures.

In light of respiratory concerns, especially in indoor processing settings, invest in premium Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for tasks like handling kief, resin, and pre-rolls. This PPE can also be used by workers outdoors when there are some air quality concerns due to fire season. It is not safe for workers to be out when air quality is poor. Check with your Worker’s Compensation provider to see what the threshold is for your policy.

If you’re looking for Work Site Safety or OSHA guidance, please reach out to NCIA’s HR Committee for recommendations.

3. Integrating Automation with the Human Touch:

2023 is undeniably a pivotal year for integrating automation in the harvest process. Advancements in technology offer tools that can help streamline multiple stages of the harvest. While there are certain upfront costs involved, there are also long-term benefits to be had in terms of overall profitability and efficiency. While much of the available machinery has a way to go before being as accurate as an experienced Harvesting Tech or Trimmer, especially for growers in remote areas, where there isn’t a large pool of talent, leaning more on automation could make the difference between harvesting your cannabis at its peak, or not.

You can also look to our related NCIA blog post from 2021 for additional suggestions to help you prepare for the Fall harvest. Navigating the harvest this season will require forward-thinking, investment in a combination of seasonal workers and technology, along with a renewed commitment to worker well-being. As challenges continue to mount in our industry, the companies that adapt and prioritize both efficiency and worker safety will undoubtedly reap the greatest rewards.

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