Why pharmacy workers at CVS, Walgreens are walking out

Business

Pharmacy workers say poor working conditions and understaffing are putting employees and patients at risk, with increased demands on staffers becoming untenable and preventing them from doing their jobs properly.

A Walgreens in Clovis, N.M.
A Walgreens in Clovis, N.M., in January 2022. Adria Malcolm for The Washington Post

Walgreens and CVS workers are staging walkouts for three days starting Monday, organizers say, marking the second such job action this month by pharmacy staffs demanding better working conditions in the face of industry retrenchment.

Organizers say they hope the job action – on the heels of an Oct. 9 work stoppage by thousands of Walgreens pharmacists – will step up pressure on management to address concerns about wages and staffing shortfalls that pharmacy workers say could hurt patients.

“After years and years of trying to get the attention of the corporations about those issues, their inability to respond properly and their skillful ways to shift blame and lie to the public about the true essence of their practices, which have eventually led to this public crisis and unsafe conditions, employees really had enough,” said Bled Tanoe, a former Walgreens pharmacist who is helping to coordinate the walkouts.

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Walkout organizers have not provided an estimate of the number of affected stores or participating employees. A Walgreens spokesman said only two of the retailer’s roughly 9,000 stores had been affected as of midafternoon Monday.

CVS spokeswoman Amy Thibault said it’s “business as usual” at the pharmacy chain. “We’re serving patients across our footprint today, and we’re not seeing any unusual activity regarding unplanned pharmacy closures or pharmacist walkouts,” she added.

Pharmacy workers say poor working conditions and understaffing are putting employees and patients at risk, with increased demands on staffers becoming untenable and preventing them from doing their jobs properly.

They are requesting that pharmacies hire more workers, establish mandatory training hours, offer better transparency in how payroll hours are assigned to stores and provide advance notice when staff will be cut or when a position opens.

One pharmacist, speaking to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, described filling hundreds of prescriptions in a given day without the help of a technician.

Thibault said CVS is engaged in a “continuous two-way dialogue” with pharmacists to address their concerns.

Walgreens spokesman Fraser Engerman said company leaders are in pharmacies regularly, listening to concerns and responding to feedback. The company has numerous ongoing efforts focused on how to recruit, retain and reward staffers, he said.

“We recognize the incredible work our pharmacists and technicians do every day and have taken a number of steps in our pharmacies to ensure that our teams can concentrate on providing optimal patient care,” Engerman said. “We have also enhanced our technology and centralized many of our operations to help maintain appropriate workloads in our pharmacies.”

Many drugstore employees have described challenging working conditions that came to a head during the coronavirus pandemic, when staff shortages and surging demand for coronavirus tests and vaccines piled onto their other daily responsibilities.

In addition to the Walgreens walkout earlier this month, pharmacy employees at CVS stores in the Kansas City area walked off the job in September.

The labor unrest comes as the industry confronts the financial fallout from the opioid epidemic. Rite Aid filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this month amid falling sales, mounting debt and lawsuits alleging that the chain helped fuel the public health crisis by knowingly filling illegal prescriptions.

Pharmacy chains also are struggling from increased competition, a shift to doing business online and an increase in crime at some brick-and-mortar stores, all of which have played a role in staffing shortages, analysts say. Sales of coronavirus vaccines and at-home tests also have ebbed.

Amid these pressures, some of the country’s largest drugstore chains have announced closures of hundreds of stores, leaving many low-income communities without desperately needed pharmacy services. They’re also facing additional competition from online retailers, as well as from Walmart, which announced a $9 billion investment Monday that includes larger pharmacies with private screening rooms for patients.

Walgreens, for its part, has sought to backstop its stores with a network of heavily automated “micro-fulfillment centers” designed to fill large volumes of prescriptions. As of Oct. 12, the chain had built 11 such fulfillment centers, which collectively support 4,300 stores with 2.3 million prescriptions across 29 states, according to interim chief executive Ginger Graham.

There are plans to build five more of them, but further expansion was paused “to first drive improvements in the rollout,” Graham said in an Oct. 12 call with investors.

Thibault said CVS is making targeted investments to address feedback from pharmacists. That includes letting teams schedule additional support as needed, improving the hiring of pharmacists and technicians, and strengthening its training, she said.

“Our goal is to develop a sustainable and scalable action plan to support both our pharmacists and our customers so we can continue delivering the high-quality care our patients depend on,” Thibault said.


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