One of Washingon’s largest licensed marijuana retailers, Have a Heart, has inked a union contract to cover 134 workers at five locations, helping it provide employee benefits while navigating the difficult waters of federal law.

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One of Washingon’s largest licensed marijuana retailers has inked a union contract to cover 134 workers at five locations, helping it provide employee benefits while navigating the difficult waters of federal law.

Ryan Kunkel, CEO and founder of Have a Heart, said the agreement with the United Food & Commercial Workers union Local 21 solves a problem for the company, which has ambitious plans to grow in a half-dozen other states.

“For better part of 3 years we have been trying to figure out how to provide basic things like health care benefits,” he said in an interview.

“We’re not a business in the eyes of the federal government,” so it’s been difficult to set up insurance coverage. But the labor contract makes employees eligible to join an established union health program with thousands of employees, he said.

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“Without that partnership, it’s not doable. That was one of the main drivers,” he said.

The company and union said it is the first such labor contract in the state’s recreational marijuana industry.

The three-year contract calls for the company to pay half the cost of medical, dental, vision and short-term disability insurance for employees and family members. Starting pay for a bud tender, merchandiser or shop host/security worker is $15, with annual raises of 75 cents an hour as well as a cost-of-living increase.

With a staff of about 200 total, Have a Heart last year reported gross revenues of $40 million. About $13 million of that went to sales and excise taxes.

The company started as a medicinal marijuana seller in 2011, then virtually shut down when Washington first transitioned to licensing recreational marijuana retailers, said Kunkel. Since then it has grown to five Washington locations from Bothell to Ocean Shores.

Kunkel said Have a Heart recently opened the first of three stores it is licensed to operate in Hawaii. The company is currently licensed in six other states, among them Oregon, California and Iowa, aiming to have 18 locations soon.

While federal law still treats marijuana as an illegal drug, making ordinary commercial transactions across state lines difficult and even risky, it’s possible to operate in multiple states. “We just have to treat each state like a silo,” he said.

He said the UFCW contract offers “a framework” for similar agreements in other states.