CVS, Walgreens pharmacists plan to walk out over work conditions

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By Fiona Rutherford and Josh Eidelson | Bloomberg News (TNS)

The Walgreens store at State and Randolph streets in Chicago. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

After brain surgery to remove a tumor, Robert Senter must take daily medication to prevent violent seizures. But it’s often hard to get his refills on time at the CVS pharmacy where he buys his medicine.

Senter, of Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, says there’s often a prescription backlog — an issue pharmacists say is caused by insufficient staffing and workers overburdened by unattainable performance metrics. Indeed, more than 2,000 U.S. pharmacists plan to walk off the job this week to pressure national drugstore chains to address poor working conditions, according to organizers.

Dubbed Pharmageddon, the walkouts follow similar actions last month by CVS pharmacists in Kansas City, Missouri, who stayed home from work in protest over unsafe working conditions. That led to the temporary closure of about 10 pharmacies in the Kansas City area, some of them in Target Corp. retail stores, CVS said at the time.

CVS even dispatched Chief Pharmacy Officer Prem Shah to Kansas City to meet with the pharmacists, but employees say he didn’t adequately address their concerns and that the walkouts will continue.

“Patients need to be aware that pharmacy employees are fighting for their safety, but the corporations are being nothing but stumbling blocks to their well-being,” said Bled Tanoe, a former Walgreens pharmacist who has been helping to organize the walkouts, in a statement.

Pharmacists and technicians are protesting without the backing of unions to protect their jobs, which paints a picture of the gravity of the matter, Tanoe said.

‘Two-way’ dialogue

CVS Health Corp. said the company was “committed to providing access to consistent, safe, high-quality health care to the patients and communities we serve and are engaging in a continuous two-way dialogue with our pharmacists to directly address any concerns they have,” according to spokesperson Amy Thibault.

Thibault said there were no walkouts at the Fuquay-Varina CVS store, but that the store has closed early twice in October due to unexpected staffing issues. She said the chain is not seeing “any unusual activity” regarding nationwide walkouts.

At rival Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., only two out of nearly 9,000 stores closed on Monday due to workforce disruptions, according to spokesperson Fraser Engerman. “Our leaders are in our pharmacies regularly, listening to concerns and frustrations and responding to feedback,” Engerman said.

The pharmacists’ actions have caught the eye of organized labor, such as the United Food & Commercial Workers union, which represents some employees at CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid. “UFCW members and staff have been communicating with many of the CVS and Walgreens workers who have been taking actions to stand up for their rights on the job,” the union’s organizing director Dave Young said in a Tuesday statement. “Where workers struggle, we stand ready to assist.”

Initially the protests caught unions by surprise, and exceeded what union leaders thought non-union pharmacists might be ready to do, according to one union official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. Unions are now trying to better understand the protests and how they can be supportive, the official said last week.

The walkouts offer an opening for unions to make the case to already protesting workers that winning collective bargaining would help address their concerns, said former Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern, in an interview.

“It’s not clear why no one is out there, working with them to make them successful,” Stern said.

Working solo

At bustling stores, it’s common for only one pharmacist to be responsible for more than 1,000 prescriptions a day, including a backlog of previous days’ prescriptions, according to CVS and Walgreens pharmacists who spoke to Bloomberg News.

On top of prescriptions, the single pharmacist must consult with patients on new medications and handle vaccination appointments.

While pharmacy technicians help with certain tasks, there is a limit on how many hours of technician assistance a pharmacist can schedule. Pharmacists, who in most stores work alone, are calling for more technician hours and for there to be an overlap of pharmacists working in the same store.

The current circumstances and working conditions make it difficult for pharmacy staff to do their job correctly, said one CVS pharmacist in the greater Chicago area who declined to give their name because they were unauthorized to speak publicly on the matter. The pharmacist said rushing through tasks leads to mistakes, including overlooking important details such as drug interaction or proper dosage.

Last year, Walgreens announced it was changing the way it evaluates pharmacists’ performance to promote tasks that better support patient care. However, pharmacists say they remain stressed by their workloads.

Performance of pharmacists is measured on metrics such as phone wait times and “promise time,” a set amount of time for prescriptions to be filled, according to one Alabama-based Walgreens pharmacist who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Pharmacists are also required to identify up to 20 customers per day who may be interested in shots beyond Covid and flu, such as shingles, tetanus, and pneumonia, the pharmacist said. That leaves less time to connect with customers and offer a broader range of healthcare services.

For Senter, the CVS customer in North Carolina, the lack of support to pharmacists have a direct impact. “It’s scary for both of us,” said Senter’s wife Cathy, a retired nurse. She describes shelves jam-packed with prescriptions and phones constantly ringing.

“They are doing all they can do,” she said. “I really feel like there is just no support on their end.”

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