Pharmacy staff from Walgreens, chains like CVS to walk out again
A sign advertises COVID-19 (coronavirus) vaccine shots at a Walgreens Pharmacy in Somerville, Massachusetts, August 14, 2023.
Brian Snyder | Reuters
Some pharmacy staff from Walgreens and other drugstore chains are planning to walk out this week in the latest pushback against what they call unsafe working conditions that put both employees and patients at risk.
Organizers of the effort and some pharmacy employees told CNBC they hope the work stoppage will push companies to make meaningful changes to address the long-standing grievances of many retail pharmacy staff, who have complained about having to grapple with what they describe as understaffed teams, insufficient pay and increasing work expectations imposed by corporate management.
The walkout, which organizers have dubbed “Pharmageddon,” will occur Monday through Wednesday across different retail pharmacy locations nationwide, organizers of the effort told CNBC.
An organizer named Shane Jerominski, an independent pharmacist who used to work for Walgreens, said the walkout could tentatively affect hundreds of stores across different chains.
Jerominski, who is a pharmacy labor advocate, said organizers still don’t have a definitive count of employees who will participate in the effort. But he noted that the “bulk” of those who have signaled they plan to walk out are staff from Walgreens — who laid the groundwork for the initiative — and employees from CVS and Rite Aid.
Organizers are also planning to hold rallies outside a few locations in different parts of the country, according to Jerominski and a second person involved with the planning, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
Jerominski and the person, who is a former pharmacy manager at supermarket chain Publix, also said they are considering a push for unionization of pharmacy staff who are currently not represented. There are no concrete agreements to move forward to join a labor group.
A spokesperson for Walgreens said the company recognizes the “incredible work our pharmacists and technicians do every day” and that it has taken several steps in its pharmacies “to ensure that our teams can concentrate on providing optimal patient care.”
The company’s ongoing efforts are focused on how it can recruit, retain and reward pharmacy staff, the spokesperson said. They added that Walgreens has improved technology and centralized many operations to help maintain appropriate workloads in pharmacies.
A CVS spokesperson said in a statement that the company isn’t seeing any “unusual activity regarding unplanned pharmacy closures or pharmacist walkouts currently.”
The spokesperson added that the company is engaging with staff to directly address any concerns they might have, and is focused on developing a “sustainable, scalable action plan” to support both pharmacists and customers.
A spokesperson for Rite Aid said the company is unaware of plans by its pharmacists to participate in the walkout. Rite Aid believes that its efforts in recent months and years to “improve work/life balance and working conditions for our pharmacists is evidence of our commitment to the team,” the spokesperson said.
The work stoppage will come weeks after some pharmacy staff from Walgreens locations around the country, and CVS stores in the Kansas City area, engaged in separate walkouts over working conditions. Notably, CVS management apologized to Kansas City pharmacy staff and committed to a series of improvements — including adding staff and paid overtime — after the walkouts there ended.
The demonstrations at pharmacies add to what has been one of the most active years for the U.S. labor movement in recent history.
CVS and Walgreens were the biggest pharmacies in the U.S. based on prescription drug market share in 2022. Both chains operate around 9,000 retail store locations across the country.
CVS has more than 30,000 pharmacists and 70,000 pharmacy technicians, while rival Walgreens has more than 86,000 health-care service providers, including pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and other positions. CVS pharmacists make $61.44 an hour on average, while Walgreens pharmacists make $53.85 per hour on average, according to employment website Indeed.
Who is participating in the pharmacy walkouts?
As pharmacy workers prepare to walk off the job, Jerominski and the former Publix pharmacy manager said some independent and retail pharmacy locations have committed to staying open to provide patients with service options.
Many of the pharmacy staff who are interested in walking out appear to be from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, California, Texas, Michigan, Missouri and Indiana, according to Jerominski.
Two pharmacy staff members from Walgreens and another two from CVS, all of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, told CNBC that they plan to walk out. One CVS store manager, who also asked to remain anonymous for the same reason, said they would participate if their location’s pharmacist does.
A CVS location in New York, US, on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.
Stephanie Keith | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Other employees don’t intend to walk out, even if they support the broader effort to secure better working conditions.
A CVS employee, who was the main organizer of the Kansas City area walkouts, said the CVS pharmacy staff in that region that they represent are not inclined to participate. The employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said CVS has negotiated with Kansas City staff “in good faith and made good on commitments thus far,” so walking out again would be “going backwards.”
A CVS pharmacy manager, who works in a different part of the country, said they have seen positive changes at their own store following the Kansas City walkouts.
But the pharmacy manager, who also requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, said they will participate in one day of the upcoming walkout — and hope their colleagues will too — because they believe employees need to replicate the solidarity seen in Kansas City “on a larger scale” to ensure CVS continues to listen to their concerns.
Why are pharmacy staff walking out?
For years, many retail pharmacy employees have complained that companies such as Walgreens and CVS are placing unreasonable performance demands on employees, without providing enough staffing or resources for them to safely and responsibly execute tasks.
They believe the issue got worse during the Covid pandemic, when pharmacists and technicians were also required to administer back-to-back tests and vaccinations on top of their normal duties.
Many pharmacy staff told CNBC that a diminishing number of workers have to juggle ever-increasing daily tasks, which they said can force errors and put patients at risk of serious harm.
“It boils down to us not being as attentive as we need to be when it comes to making sure people get the right medicines or making sure patients are properly educated and assisted,” a CVS pharmacist said.
Roughly 100,000 prescription errors are voluntarily reported to the Food and Drug Administration annually. Between 7,000 and 9,000 people in the U.S. die every year due to medication errors.
Some employees said the working conditions also weigh on their mental and physical health. Many staffers described feeling burnt out by their workloads.
In addition to filling and verifying prescriptions, pharmacy employees often have to juggle patient phone calls, administer vaccines every 15 minutes, resolve issues with insurance companies and doctors, perform rapid Covid and flu tests and deal with in-store customers.
“We come home and you can’t even think of doing other things because you’re just so exhausted,” a Walgreens pharmacy technician told CNBC, likening their work shift to a marathon. “I’ve been falling asleep just sitting down.”
New vaccine COMIRNATY® (COVID-19 Vaccine, mRNA) by Pfizer, available at CVS Pharmacy in Eagle Rock, CA.
Irfan Khan | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images
Some pharmacy staff told CNBC that company-imposed performance metrics, such as filling a specific number of prescriptions a day or administering a certain number of vaccines, add even more pressure on them.
Jerominski, the organizer and pharmacy labor advocate, claimed immunizations have become a chief priority for retail pharmacy chains because the margins on vaccines are significantly higher than the average prescription.
The CVS spokesperson said the company has reduced the number of metrics it uses in recent years, but noted the information “gleaned from safety and quality metrics provides us with a clearer picture of what’s working and where improvements may be needed.”
Meanwhile, Walgreens announced the elimination of performance-based metrics last year, making it the only drugstore chain to do so.
However, some Walgreens pharmacy staff told CNBC that the company continues to push their stores to hit performance goals for tasks like verifying prescriptions. Walgreens has denied employee claims that those metrics still exist.
The former Publix pharmacy manager claimed that those types of working conditions are why few people want to work for large retail drugstore chains.
What else are pharmacy staff hoping for?
Unionization is “one hugely important piece of this process,” no matter which existing labor union steps up to represent pharmacy employees who aren’t currently represented, Jerominski said.
He noted the vast majority of pharmacists and technicians from Walgreens and CVS have no union representation, while pharmacy staff from a handful of grocery retailers such as Kroger do.
Jerominski said he has organized a fundraiser for a national push to unionize, which had collected nearly $60,000 as of Friday. Organizers have been in talks with multiple existing unions over the past two months, but there is no concrete agreement yet to move forward, he added.
Jerominski said the organizations include IAM Healthcare, a union representing thousands of professionals in the health-care industry, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents food, retail and health-care workers across the U.S. and Canada.
IAM Healthcare did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while UFCW has expressed its support for the recent walkouts staged by Walgreens and CVS pharmacy staff.
People make their way near a Walgreens pharmacy in New York City, March 9, 2023.
Leonardo Munoz | Corbis News | Getty Images
Some pharmacy employees also told CNBC they hope the upcoming walkout will help patients better understand the conditions employees are working in and why they may lead to longer wait times, medication errors or similar issues.
One Walgreens pharmacist said they believe patients are understandably upset when they can’t pick up their medications in a quick and seamless way. However, it can be emotionally taxing for employees when they have to deal with patients who get aggressive or, in rare cases, violent, the pharmacist said.
Similarly, the CVS store manager said they hope the walkout will make patients more understanding.
“At the very least, I hope this results in one customer that can come in and say, ‘Hey, I get it. I’ll be right here and I’ll be patient,'” the CVS store manager said. “If it changes one customer from coming in an immediately cussing and screaming at myself — even if it’s rightfully so — then it’s absolutely worth it.”