Workers at Jeannette hemp warehouse protest lack of pay
Former employees of a Jeannette hemp-drying facility stood in frigid temperatures outside the business Friday morning, waving cardboard signs and urging passing cars to honk in support.
The target of their protest: Patriot Shield Security, the employer that hasn’t paid them in weeks.
Employees said pay has been inconsistent since they were hired.
“They gave us a pay stub dated for (Nov.) 5; we never got any money in our account,” said Rose Thomas, a former shift supervisor and one of six protesters outside the Thomas Avenue warehouse. All said they are Jeannette residents.
Thomas said she worked for Patriot Shield for more than two months. She said her first paycheck was late. Her second was in cash and she never received a third, she said.
“I’ve been here a month and a half, and I got one five-day paycheck,” said Willy Piscar, another protester.
Thomas said she and fellow employees live paycheck to paycheck. She has children and is facing eviction if she doesn’t get paid.
Andrew Englund, Patriot Shield’s Pennsylvania director, acknowledged the company has not been able to pay its employees on time.
“We’re a start-up. We’re a little late on payroll, so we’ve got some disgruntled employees,” he said.
The warehouse employs a little more than 200 people, he said.
The company has not been able to collect money from some of its clients, he said.
“It’s part of the industry,” Englund said. “A lot of our clients are farmers, and some of them just ran out of money to pay us.”
The company is close to getting its financial affairs in order, at which time it will pay employees, he said.
“We have no intention of leaving anybody out in the cold,” Englund said.
The protesters don’t believe him. The conflict came to a head about 7 a.m. Friday. Thomas and the others were near the end of their shift, which began at midnight.
Englund and the protesters describe Friday’s events differently.
Patriot Shield ordered them to work despite the lack of pay or be fired, Thomas said. She disciplined several employees who weren’t doing their jobs, but Englund fired her and several others anyway.
Thomas was allowing employees to fall asleep on the job, Englund said. She was demoted — not fired — at which point she and several others quit, he said.
Employees demanded their paychecks and initially refused to leave until they were paid.
That’s when Patriot Shield called Jeannette police to remove a man from the property. Other employees went across the street and began their protest.
The man was mad because he hadn’t gotten paid, police Chief Shannon Binda said. The employee was asked to leave and was not arrested.
A similar situation happened Tuesday when a different person arrived at the facility to pick up a paycheck that wasn’t available, Binda said. That person became angry, and police were called. The person left the building at the request of officers but later came back and started kicking the door.
That person, Binda said, was cited for disorderly conduct.
Workers who haven’t been paid should file civil complaints with District Judge Joseph DeMarchis in Jeannette, Binda advised.
Patriot Shield Security started last year in Colorado, providing transportation and security for hemp and marijuana businesses.
Protester Marlon Jackson said he can’t believe a multi-state corporation can’t find the money to pay its workers.
“Don’t tell me you don’t have the money,” he said.
Flyers posted outside the warehouse advertise jobs starting at $13 an hour. Thomas said she was paid $17 an hour, though she recently switched to a salaried position.
Englund said the company is close to achieving financial stability. He urged employees to stick around.
“If you want to leave, we understand,” Englund said. “But if you stick around in the bad times, it’s going to be good in the good times.”
Protesters doubt that good times are coming.
“They’re about to leave and shut their company down, and they’re not going to pay us,” Thomas said.
The Jeannette warehouse has been dogged by controversy since it started operating in September.
It processes thousands of pounds of hemp, turning it into a smokeable product that is like marijuana but without the high. Residents who live near the warehouse complained of a strong marijuana smell that was still prevalent Friday.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has issued two notices of odor violations — on Oct. 7 and Nov. 1. The most recent notice states that odors from Patriot Shield could be smelled on State, Welker, Lafferty and Gondola streets on Oct. 29 and 30.
Jeannette officials said Patriot Shield started operating without an occupancy permit for the warehouse. The company’s deadline to address issues, such as odors and other neighbor complaints, was Nov. 2, according to solicitor Tim Witt.
The city issued the company a cease and desist order Oct. 2 but later rescinded it to try to work out an agreement. Witt said Patriot Shield submitted information to the city about changes it has made since then and officials are reviewing those reports. If the changes don’t meet building and code requirements for an occupancy permit, the city may need to issue another cease and desist order, Witt said.
“If not, we’re going to have to take steps to have it immediately closed,” he said.