Medical marijuana organizations in Pennsylvania, deemed “essential" and "life-sustaining businesses” by the state during the coronavirus pandemic, say a bottleneck has prevented them from hiring hundreds of workers.

Unemployment has hit more than one in six Pennsylvanians since the coronavirus shutdowns began.

Still, legal cannabis businesses say they can’t bring on new employees. New dispensaries can’t hire enough “bud-tenders,” the staffers who consult with patients. Established dispensaries are struggling to fill jobs left open by quarantined workers who may have the coronavirus or need to care for an ailing loved one.

Hiring is frozen because prospective employees can’t get the necessary FBI criminal background checks and drug tests. Many of the offices that processed fingerprints are shuttered due to the closure of non-essential businesses to stem the spread of the virus.

“It’s just so unbelievably frustrating,” said Harrisburg lawyer Judith Cassel, who represents several medical marijuana businesses. “I have five clients with over 100 openings. And there are likely hundreds more that are waiting. These are good-paying jobs, many of which come with health-care benefits.”

In a letter to the state Department of Health, Cassel has requested a temporary 90-day waiver that would allow job candidates to sign an affidavit attesting to the lack of any criminal record. All prospective employees would undergo third-party background checks. Untruthful responses or failure to pass the checks would result in immediate job termination.

In the last month, New Jersey and Maryland have adopted temporary regulations that allow for hiring workarounds similar to those proposed by Cassel.

“We understand the need for background checks and department oversight on hires during normal circumstances,” Cassel wrote. “But these are not normal times. The current process does not rise to the current challenge.”

A spokesman said the Department of Health was working to solve the problem.

The bottlenecks are not limited to Pennsylvania. An official with a Chicago-based marijuana company, Cresco Labs, said the company has been stymied in its attempt to hire 250 more workers in Illinois for similar reasons.

“Under normal circumstances it takes two to six weeks to get an employee approved," said Cresco’s executive vice president, John Sullivan. "But since most state government functions are closed down, and a lot of the fingerprint agencies shut, too, the process is stretching out longer and longer.”

Cresco, which operates in 11 states, grows marijuana near Pittsburgh for the Pennsylvania market and retails medical cannabis at four dispensaries in the western part of the state.

It plans to hire 75 people in Southeastern Pennsylvania by the end of summer to staff its Sunnyside medical marijuana dispensary in Center City and two additional retail stores in the Philadelphia region.

The Pennsylvania medical marijuana industry employs thousands of workers statewide and serves about 180,000 active patients.

“We don’t have a huge backlog in Pennsylvania right now,” Cresco spokesman Jason Erkes said. “But we have to hire them before the end of the month for credentialing and badging purposes. Already we’ve had three people waiting weeks to find a place that can do their fingerprints because of the sheltering-in-place.”