CARES Act – Stimulus Package Won’t Aid the Cannabis Industry

On Wednesday, March 25, the United States Senate approved an estimated $2-trillion stimulus package in response to the economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. The legislation, formally known as the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” (or the CARES Act), was approved by the Senate 96-0 following days of negotiations. One of the most highly anticipated provisions of the CARES Act, the “recovery rebates” for individuals, will provide a one-time cash payment up to $1,200 per qualifying individual ($2,400 in the case of eligible individuals filing a joint return) plus an additional $500 for qualifying children (§6428.2020(a)). The CARES Act, which remains subject to House approval, also prescribes an additional $500 billon in corporate aid, $100 billion to health-care providers, $150 billion to state and local governments and $349 billion in small business loans in an effort to provide continued employment and stabilize the economy. The legislation further provides billions of dollars in debt relief on existing loans.

CARES Act – Paycheck Protection Program 

Under the CARES Act, small businesses who participate in the “Paycheck Protection Program” can receive loans to cover payroll expenses, group health care benefits, employee salaries, interest on mortgage obligations, rent, and utilities (§1102(F)(i)). To qualify for these small business loans, businesses must employ 500 employees or less, including all full-time and part-time employees (§1102(D)). Eligible recipients must also submit the following as part of their loan application: (i) documentation verifying the number of full-time equivalent employees on payroll and applicable pay rates; (ii) documentation verifying payments on covered mortgage obligations, payments on covered lease obligations, and covered utility payments; and (iii) a certification that the documentation presented is true and the amounts requested will be used to retain employees and make necessary payments (§1106(e)). The CARES Act delegates authority to depository institutions, insured credit unions, institutions of the Farm Credit System and other lenders to provide loans under this program (§1109(b)). The Treasury Department will be tasked with establishing all interest rates, loan maturity dates, and all other necessary terms and conditions. Prior to issuing these loans, lenders will consider whether the business (i) was in operation as of February 15, 2020, (ii) had employees for whom the business paid salaries and payroll, or (iii) aid independent contractors as reported on a Form 1099-MISC (§1102(F)(ii)(II)).

What Does This Mean for Cannabis Businesses?

Due to the continued Schedule I status of cannabis (excluding hemp) under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), cannabis businesses are not eligible to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program intended to keep “small businesses” afloat during the current economic crisis. Because federal law still prohibits banks from supporting marijuana businesses, financial institutions remain hesitant to service the industry, as anti-money laundering concerns and Bank Secrecy Act requirements (31 U.S.C. 5311 et seq.) are ever-present. As a result, even if cannabis businesses technically qualify to receive federal assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program, they will face an uphill battle in actually obtaining such loans.

Cannabis Businesses Are Also Precluded from “Disaster” Assistance

Moreover, the conflict between state and federal law continues to prevent cannabis business from receiving assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act (H.R. 6201). In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the SBA revised its “Disaster Loan” process to provide low-interest “Disaster Loans” to eligible small businesses. To qualify for these loans, a state must submit documented business losses for at least five businesses per county. The problem, however, is that the SBA still refuses to assist state-legal cannabis businesses in equal need of small business loans. Specifically, in a 2018 Policy Notice, the SBA reaffirmed that cannabis businesses – and even some non “plant-touching” firms who service the cannabis industry – cannot receive aid in the form of federally backed loans, as “financial transactions involving a marijuana-related business would generally involve funds derived from illegal activity.” The 2018 Policy Notice clarified that the following business are ineligible to receive SBA loans:

(a) “Direct Marijuana Business” — a business that grows, produces, processes, distributes, or sells marijuana or marijuana products, edibles, or derivatives, regardless of the amount of such activity. This applies to personal use and medical use even if the business is legal under local or state law where the applicant business is or will be located.

 (b) “Indirect Marijuana Business” — a business that derived any of its gross revenue for the previous year (or, if a start-up, projects to derive any of its gross revenue for the next year) from sales to Direct Marijuana Businesses of products or services that could reasonably be determined to support the use, growth, enhancement or other development of marijuana. Examples include businesses that provide testing services, or sell grow lights or hydroponic equipment, to one or more Direct Marijuana Businesses. In addition, businesses that sell smoking devices, pipes, bongs, inhalants, or other products that may be used in connection with marijuana are ineligible if the products are primarily intended or designed for such use or if the business markets the products for such use.

More recently, the SBA provided further clarification that cannabis businesses are not entitled to receive a cut of the federal dollars being appropriated for disaster relief because of the CSA’s continued prohibition of the sale and distribution of cannabis. Last week, the SBA reiterated that:

“With the exception of businesses that produce or sell hemp and hemp-derived products [federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill], marijuana related businesses are not eligible for SBA-funded services.” (@SBAPacificNW)

Consequently, because of the continued Schedule I status of cannabis under federal law, cannabis businesses will not be entitled to receive Disaster Loans from the SBA, regardless of whether they qualify as a struggling small business.

Resolving the Issue

While the federal government has been considering legislation, such as SAFE Banking and the STATES Act, to create a more rational federal cannabis policy, neither of these bills are likely to pass any time soon given the current COVID-19 pandemic.

At the end of the day, until Congress passes some form of federal cannabis legalization, these small businesses will remain plagued by the inability to receive financial assistance, as evinced by the Paycheck Protection Program.

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Best Practices for Workforce Reduction

Due to anticipated contractions in the industry and concerns over a potential nationwide recession, cannabis industry employers may be planning on implementing large scale reduction in force (RIF) layoffs or employee furloughs to reduce payroll. While RIFs can provide business-saving cost reductions, they can subject an employer to substantial potential legal liability, including but not limited to class action lawsuits and enforcement actions from state and federal agencies. Understanding and addressing potential legal pitfalls before implementing an RIF can help in materially limiting an employer’s potential legal exposure.

Employers should first consider potential cost saving alternatives to implementing mass employee layoffs. Such steps can include reducing the salaries and/or work hours for current employees, temporarily freezing company operations for limited periods, or placing non-critical positions in a limited paid leave of absence at reduced wages. While each of these steps bear their own risks, they may assist in avoiding mass employee layoffs.

Next, federal law and the laws of certain states require employers to provide written notice to employees and local governments at least 60 days before implementing mass layoffs. For example, under the federal Work Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, an employer must generally provide a written notice to employees regarding an impending reduction in force when it: (1) permanently or temporarily shuts down a worksite which results in an employment loss of 50 or more employees; (2) lays off between 50 to 499 workers at a single worksite when such layoffs constitute at least 33% of the employer’s workforce; (3) lays off at least 500 employees within a 30 day period; (4) implements a wide scale temporary layoff of more than 6 months; or (5) reduces the work hours of 50 or more employees by at least 50% during each month of any six month period. Please note that the WARN Act aggregates layoffs over 90 days; thus, an employer conducting a series of smaller layoffs may still need to provide employees with a WARN notice. An employer who fails to provide a required notice could owe each impacted employee up to 60 days’ back pay, which includes but is not limited to the cost of potential employment benefits.

An employer should also take steps to limit potential discrimination claims based on an RIF. It is illegal for an employer to select an employee for layoff because of their protected characteristics, including but not limited to race, religion, gender or age. The primary defense to such a discrimination lawsuit is to prove the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the layoff decision. As a result, employers are strongly encouraged to create a formal RIF plan which documents the legitimate reasons for layoff decisions. The RIF plan should expressly articulate the cost-saving grounds for the RIF and the goals to be achieved by its implementation; these grounds and goals should be the sole reason for any subsequent layoff decision.

Employers are strongly encouraged to consult with legal counsel before implementing an RIFFor example, an employer should identify all necessary positions and employee skills needed for a company’s current and future business operations in order to identify non-essential positions that may be subject to position eliminations or layoffs. Similarly, employers should create standards to select employees for a RIF when multiple employees hold the same or similar jobs. These standards commonly include considering employees’ education, skills, unique knowledge, previous job performance and seniority. Most importantly, an employer should make actual layoff decisions that are consistent with its articulated RIF plans; under both state and federal law, a termination decision that is inconsistent with or contradictory to the articulated reasons for a layoff decision may provide an employee with considerable evidence that that his or her termination was at least partly motivated by their protected characteristics.

Even when making and implementing a reduction in force plan based solely on legitimate business reasons, employers must be aware of the adverse impact those decisions have on certain groups of employees. It is illegal for an employer to implement policies and practices that are facially neutral but have an unintentional discriminatory effect on protected groups of employees if those policies and practices are not job related or required by business necessity. Before implementing an RIF, employers are strongly encouraged to perform a statistical analysis of the protected characteristics of individuals selected for layoffs to determine whether they are being selected for layoffs at a significantly higher rate than other employees. If an employer does discover that certain groups are being selected for layoffs at a disproportionate rate, an employer should review its layoff decisions to confirm that these decisions are in fact required by business necessity.

Finally, employers will commonly provide severance packages to laid off employees to assist in their transition to other employment. A key factor in these packages is an employee providing an employer with a full release of potential legal claims in exchange for a severance payment. Employers are strongly encouraged to ensure that they obtain full and complete legal releases in any severance agreements they provide. For example, under California law, an employee can only provide a full and complete release of legal claims when a separation agreement specifically cites and waives a specific provision of California’s civil code. Additionally, an employer cannot obtain a legal release of federal age discrimination claims when it offers a separation package to multiple employees over 40 during an RIF program unless it provides specific information regarding the job positions and ages of employees who were and were not selected for layoffs.

While a reduction in force layoff program may help ensure a business’ survival, employers are strongly encouraged to consult with legal counsel before implementing an RIF to detect and avoid potential future legal claims.

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