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THIS WEEK IN WEED

A beloved cafeteria worker nicked his finger on a knife — and got fired for using marijuana at home

Leon Hagins was fired from his job when he tested positive for marijuana.
Leon Hagins was fired from his job when he tested positive for marijuana.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

Despite their mastery of everything from artificial intelligence to missile design, the researchers at MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington have yet to work out how to photosynthesize the energy their brains need.

That is to say, even geniuses with security clearances have to eat.

And for nearly 13 years, Leon Hagins was one of the people who fed them. The 56-year-old cook was a fixture at the Lincoln Lab cafeteria, where his irrepressible positivity, relentless work ethic, and unfailingly friendly customer service earned him the respect and friendship of his co-workers and legions of scientists.

In fact, people who worked there described Hagins as perhaps the most popular person on the sprawling defense research campus — or at least he was, until a minor kitchen accident in 2017 spurred his employer, food contractor Sodexo, to drug test and fire Hagins for using marijuana during his off hours.

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If the name Sodexo sounds familiar, it’s probably because the company is already infamous for firing a worker simply because she tested positive for pot: Bernadette Coughlin, whose case went viral last year after my colleague Nestor Ramos wrote about it.

The Sodexo firings underline a contradiction in Massachusetts law, under which marijuana is legal but employers are still permitted to sack (or decline to hire) workers for using it, regardless of whether there’s evidence they were impaired on the job.

Sodexo’s firing of Coughlin — an apparent attempt to avoid paying her workers’ compensation claim following a fluky slip-and-fall accident at the hospital cafeteria where she worked — drew widespread condemnation and prompted state Senator Jason Lewis to file a bill that would make it harder for companies to terminate employees just because they consume cannabis. The measure is currently pending before the Massachusetts Legislature’s judiciary committee, cochaired by state Senator Jamie Eldridge.

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“I’m extremely disturbed that a company could or would fire someone for using a drug that’s legal in Massachusetts,” Eldridge said in an interview. “It’s definitely something that the Legislature needs to address this session.”

Lawmakers recently held a hearing on the bill, and the committee could potentially recommend it to the full House and Senate later this year. Its ultimate political prospects are uncertain, however, thanks in part to skepticism from the state’s largest employer lobbying group, Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Hagins, whose termination predates Coughlin’s by well over a year, reached out to the Globe after a friend sent him an article about her case. Their situations are similar, with co-workers confirming their narratives and insisting they were diligent employees who never showed up to work high.

At Lincoln Lab, many engineers and other workers considered Hagins an integral part of the team, hanging around his station just to chat and confiding in him.

“We had a wonderful, wonderful rapport,” Hagins recalled.

Likewise, it appears Sodexo considered Hagins a model employee, asking him to train other workers and giving him perfect attendance awards — he was never late for his 5:30 a.m. shift, and he guesses he called out sick just two or three times in more than a decade of work.

But none of that seemed to matter in December 2017, when Hagins accidentally nicked his pointer finger on a knife — an injury he said was less severe than the average paper cut — and went looking for a small bandage so the wound wouldn’t get infected. The cafeteria’s new manager gave him one but soon told him to drop everything he was doing, get in his car, and drive immediately to a nearby lab for a drug test.

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“I was just dumbfounded,” Hagins said. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Look how small it is!’ But she said that was the policy.”

The urine test showed marijuana metabolites. That didn’t surprise Hagins: He’s occasionally smoked weed since he was a teenager, saying it helps him relax, dulls the aches that come from working on one’s feet, and inspires him to write about his favorite Bible verses on his website. But he insists that he was never high at work and noted that the drug was legal in Massachusetts at the time.

Nonetheless, Sodexo suspended Hagins for two weeks. When a supervisor called at the end of the suspension, Hagins figured it was to arrange his return to the job. Instead, the company fired him. It was two weeks before Christmas.

His co-workers protested, and higher-ups at Lincoln Lab also tried to intervene but could not persuade the company to reverse its decision. One Sodexo worker, who asked that her name be withheld to avoid retribution, said outrage quickly spread among the cafeteria’s customers.

“Oh, they were so mad,” she recalled. “People are still asking how he’s doing. Morale really dropped for us, too. It was totally unfair. He was the hardest worker.”

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And, she said emphatically, “I never would have suspected [Hagins] smoked pot — never and a day.”

The team that manages Lincoln Lab’s facilities wrote Hagins a glowing letter of recommendation, calling him “the face of food-service operations” there — and pointedly noting that the customer service he provided could “make or break” the committee’s impression of Sodexo.

“Leon set the standard for all other workers to meet,” the letter signed by four Lincoln Lab managers reads. “He made each person feel welcome and special.”

A Sodexo spokesman said in a brief statement that the company “complies with the law and recognizes that this is an evolving legal and social issue.” He did not address questions about the company’s decision to fire Hagins.

After his termination, Hagins landed a job as a maintenance worker at a nearby hotel, where his Lincoln Lab regulars would sometimes come and page him to the front desk to catch up.

But Hagins resigned this spring, after his long-deteriorating knees made working too painful. Because he had not yet served a full year at the hotel, Hagins was ineligible for the company’s benefits. He’s now living with his elderly parents and fighting to qualify for early Social Security — while wondering how things would be different if he could still access Sodexo’s generous disability and other benefits.

“I would be in a much, much better position,” he said.

A growing number of jurisdictions are moving to protect workers who consume marijuana legally, including Nevada, which recently banned most firms from conducting preemployment pot tests. Proponents of such measures note that marijuana can be detected in the body weeks after use.

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The bill filed by Lewis would block companies from policing workers’ private, legal consumption of cannabis, while carving out exceptions for firms whose business would be jeopardized if they do not test employees.

“It is wrong and unfair for people like Bernadette Coughlin and Leon Hagins to be fired for using cannabis on their own personal time since this is now a legal drug like alcohol,” Lewis told me.

Coughlin herself can’t say much under the terms of a settlement she reached to resolve her dispute with Sodexo but nonetheless expressed sympathy for Hagins.

“I, better than most, understand this issue and the consequences of the continued delay in enacting a legislative fix,” she told TWIW. “This underscores the need to promptly pass the proposal filed by Senator Lewis. Until the Legislature acts, confusion for both employer and employee will continue to reign.”

Hagins, Eldridge, and others also see class and race at play in the debate over marijuana and employment, noting that supervisors and executives are rarely subjected to drug tests. One Sodexo worker said that company managers routinely fail to report their own on-the-job injuries.

“The whole thing — going in there, [urinating] in a cup — it’s demeaning,” Hagins said. “They make us do it, but the guys up in the office don’t have to do nothing.”

Despite that understandable bitterness, Hagins still has affection for Sodexo, frequently referring to his old job in the present tense. A year and a half later, he said he mostly just wants the company — and the state — to rethink its approach to marijuana.

“I just want them to look at the facts, their policies, and how the world is changing,” Hagins said. “Are we doing the right thing, or are we losing good employees?”


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Find him on Twitter at @Dan_Adams86.