Pharmacists Stage Walkouts Over Working Conditions, More Protests Possible
WASHINGTON — Pharmacists at dozens of Walgreens and CVS locations across the U.S. have staged walkouts this month to protest what they say are unsafe working conditions in their pharmacies.
And more could be on the way, say organizers of the demonstrations.
Meanwhile Walgreens hopes a change at the top, effective today, will help quell its pharmacists’ dissatisfaction.
The successive waves of protests by employees of the two pharmacy giants began with a walkout staged by CVS pharmacists in Kansas City, Missouri, in September.
The pharmacists complained they are short-staffed and overworked, and the demands on them have been increasing ever since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020.
The Kansas City pharmacists claimed that the two walkouts they staged in the city last month temporarily closed 22 stores. CVS has only confirmed that 10 locations were impacted by the labor action.
Exact numbers are hard to come by as many major pharmacy employees are not unionized, and the organizing around the walkouts has been done mainly on a grassroots level through social media and by email.
Regardless of how many stores were actually impacted, the walkouts got the company’s attention. In their aftermath, Prem Shah, CVS’s chief pharmacy officer, issued a memo to all employees, promising to act on their concerns.
Megan Ehret, professor and co-director of the Mental Health Program at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, has been in the pharmacists’ shoes.
As she recently told the nonprofit Institute for Public Accuracy, before joining the university faculty, she worked for nearly 15 years for CVS as a part-time “floater” pharmacist.
“I know what it’s like in the ‘frontline trenches’ day to day,” Ehret said.
“Post-COVID [pandemic], the workload at community pharmacies has skyrocketed due to a host of factors, including the fact that pharmacy benefit managers are rolling back reimbursements, meaning pharmacies are making less money overall,” she said.
“Independent pharmacies can’t afford it,” she continued. “In addition, until recently, the federal government was reimbursing pharmacies for COVID vaccines, and now that’s gone by the wayside.”
Ehret said in the past, a customer walking into a Walgreens or CVS would likely find some “shift overlap,” where two to three pharmacists were working at the same time.
“Now [pharmacies] have drastically reduced that, and most times there is never overlap — just one pharmacist at all times,” she said. “They have also cut technician hours. Before, you might have had 120 tech-hours per week, but now there are 80, let’s say. So [pharmacists] are doing more and have less help.”
Ehret went on to say that attempts to rectify the situation have largely backfired.
“Pharmacists are told to come in early and stay late, but they’re not getting paid for that,” she said. “There is no one to cover you if you need to call out. We’re seeing a lot of burnout — a lot of people leaving community pharmacies and leaving the profession altogether.
“[The pharmacies] think that cutting pharmacy hours will help, but that means you have to get it all done in less time,” Ehret continued. “These decisions were meant to be helpful, but they are not working. These decisions are made at a corporate level, versus [the experience of] boots on the ground.”
In a statement provided to The Well News, Amy Thibault, a spokeswoman for CVS Health, said the company is “committed to providing access to consistent, safe, high-quality health care to the patients and communities we serve.”
She went on to say CVS is working with its pharmacists “to directly address any concerns they may have.
“We’re focused on developing a sustainable, scalable action plan to support both our pharmacists and our customers, that can be put in place in markets where support may be needed so we can continue delivering the high-quality care our patients depend on,” Thibault said.
Walgreens pharmacists’ staged a larger-scale walkout about two weeks after the CVS action, demanding that the company better train new staff members, be more transparent about employee schedules and better explain tasks and expectations to its workers at all staffing levels.
Organizers of the Walgreens walkouts said they impacted more than 300 pharmacy locations nationwide. The chain put the number at closer to a dozen.
In a written statement, Walgreens spokesman Fraser Engerman said the company is committed to “ensuring that our entire pharmacy team has the support and resources necessary to continue to provide the best care to our patients while taking care of their own well-being.”
The company has also made a major change at the top.
As of Monday, Oct. 23, Tim Wentworth, who formerly headed Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefit manager, will take over as CEO.
His predecessor, Rosalind Brewer, stepped down in late August, just before the protests erupted.
In a press release, Walgreens’ executive board chairman Stefano Pessina said Wentworth is “an accomplished and respected leader with profound expertise in the payer and pharmacy space as well as supply chain, IT and Human Resources.”
In the release, Walgreens noted that Wentworth is joining the company “at a pivotal time, as the company focuses on right-sizing the business, while driving execution and creating greater value for employees, patients, customers and shareholders.”
“We are confident he is the right person to lead [Walgreens’] next phase of growth into a customer-centric health care company,” Pessina said in the release.
In a statement included in the same release, Wenworth said, “I fully recognize the challenges that health plans, health care providers, pharmacies, and retailers are confronting today and am confident that [Walgreens], and its customer- and patient-focused teams, can seize the opportunities of a dynamic marketplace and be the partner of choice.”