Jeannette hemp plant reopens, but employee pay issue remains
A hemp-drying facility in Jeannette reopened over the weekend after ventilation was added. Current and former employees, however, still say they have not been paid for weeks of work.
Patriot Shield Security was permitted to reopen on a temporary basis after an inspection late Friday, said Bill Whetzel, the city’s code enforcement officer.
“If there are any (odor) complaints, they will be closed again immediately,” Whetzel said.
A group of employees visited the Thomas Avenue facility Monday morning. Some said they heard coworkers got paid and others said company officials told them to come there that day. But there were no paychecks, and the police apparently were called after employees got angry.
“Now they’re telling us either later today or Wednesday,” said former employee Barry Blair of Jeannette. “I got bills to pay, I got a car payment.”
The beleaguered hemp drying plant owned by Colorado-based Patriot Shield Security was shut down Wednesday. The city issued a cease-and-desist order after Patriot Shield failed to meet code requirements to obtain an occupancy permit. The company has until Dec. 2 to submit architectural drawings to the city detailing plans for improvements and a deadline could be set for the installation of a permanent exhaust system, Whetzel said.
Andrew Englund, Patriot Shield’s state director in Pennsylvania, did not respond to requests for comment. He told the Tribune-Review a week ago that the company expected to pay employees “in the next few days.”
The plant has come under fire since September, when it opened without an occupancy permit.
Then, nearby residents complained about a strong marijuana-like odor and the state Department of Environmental Protection issued two notices of odor violations — on Oct. 7 and Nov. 1. A faint odor was noticeable around the property Monday. The city permitted the plant to operate on a temporary basis until Nov. 2.
Current and former employees continue to protest the company because they haven’t received a paycheck in weeks. The next pay is Wednesday, employees said. The warehouse employed more than 200 people, some of whom continued to work despite the pay issues.
The company advertised jobs starting at $13 an hour, though some employees said they earned more.
Former employee Rose Thomas of Jeannette said she is days away from eviction. Others have already lost their homes and been forced to move, according to Thomas and Blair. With the holidays approaching, the lack of pay is magnified.
“It’s tight, it’s extra tight this year,” Blair said.
Farmers brought hemp to Patriot Shield Security to be dried into smokeable hemp flowers. That smoke tastes like pot and delivers the purported health and relaxation benefits of cannabinoids, without the THC that gets the smoker high.
Tom Ryan, chief financial officer of Allegheny County-based Cymek and Standard Hemp Seed Company, said hemp farmers take their products to Patriot Shieldto be processed. Afterwards, the finished product is sold.
“They’re providing a service to the farmer, the employees help them provide the service,” he said.
Ryan was concerned during the plant’s closure about the viability of hemp he has being processed there. Now, farmers want “to encourage the facility to get the work done in a timely and professional manner,” he said.
The U.S. Farm Bill, which last year legalized the crop, regulates growers only. The state Department of Agriculture inspects farmers that grow hemp but is not responsible for facilities that store and process it. It’s unclear what regulations — if any — exist on the storage and manufacture of hemp products.
Ryan said there are growing pains with the new industry, but the product has benefits.
“We’re trying to work out the bugs this year,” he said.
Patriot Shield Security started last year in Colorado, providing transportation and security for hemp and cannabis businesses. Customers wanted places to store and process their products, which led Patriot Shield to expand its mission into Pennsylvania.
The Thomas Avenue warehouse is owned by Herzl Real Estate, an Israeli-American company that bought the property for nearly $1.5 million in 2017. Herzl initially hoped to turn the warehouse into a medical marijuana grower/processor, but the state did not grant its 2018 permit application.
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, [email protected] or via Twitter .