Pharmacy staff from Walgreens are laying the groundwork for a nationwide walkout and multiple rallies at the end of October to protest unsatisfactory working conditions, and are in talks with employees from other retail pharmacies about joining them, CNBC has learned.
Those efforts, which are still in the planning stages, reflect the growing discontent among retail pharmacy staff, who have complained for years about having to grapple with understaffed teams and increasing work expectations imposed by corporate management. The Covid pandemic only exacerbated those issues, as new duties like testing and vaccination stretched pharmacists and technicians even thinner.
Those frustrations came to a head in recent weeks, as some pharmacy staff from Walgreens locations around the country and CVS stores in the Kansas City area engaged in separate walkouts. Those demonstrations – and the planning for a broader work stoppage – add to what has been one of the most active years for the labor movement in recent U.S. history.
A Walgreens organizer, an employee of the chain who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said the walkouts are scheduled for Oct. 30 to Nov. 1. Another organizer named Shane Jerominski, an independent pharmacist who used to work for Walgreens, confirmed those dates. Jerominski is a pharmacy labor advocate who has been actively involved in organizing recent walkouts.
The Walgreens organizer said they have been in talks with pharmacy staff from other retail chains about participating in the group walkout. The person sees nationwide walkouts across several retail pharmacy chains as the “next step” in the fight against current working conditions.
A Walgreens spokesperson redirected CNBC to the company’s earlier statement in response to the walkouts pharmacy staff held this week.
The spokesperson touted the company’s pharmacy teams in that statement, noting that they work “tirelessly to serve our communities” at nearly 9,000 store locations across the U.S. The spokesperson also acknowledged that the “last few years have required an unprecedented effort from our team members.”
Walgreens is engaged and listening to the concerns of pharmacy staff, the spokesperson said in the statement. In particular, the company said it has been making significant investments in wages and hiring bonuses in order to retain pharmacists in hard-to-staff locations.
Walgreens pharmacists make $57.45 an hour on average, according to employment website Indeed. The company has more than 86,000 health-care service providers, including pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and other health-related professionals.
Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians work under the company’s U.S. retail pharmacy segment. That division contributes the most sales by far of its business segments, raking in $110 billion in fiscal year 2023.
A CVS employee, who was the main organizer of the Kansas City area walkouts, confirmed that they have been in contact with the Walgreens organizer about getting the CVS pharmacy staff they represent to join the nationwide effort. That employee, who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, represents CVS pharmacists and pharmacy technicians in the Kansas City area.
But the CVS employee said whether those employees join will depend on the outcome of a meeting the person has with Prem Shah, the company’s chief pharmacy officer and president of pharmacy and consumer wellness, on Friday.
During that meeting, the employee will assess what CVS has done so far to execute a series of changes it committed to – including adding staff and paid overtime – after the Kansas City area walkouts ended last month.
The CVS employee said if the meeting goes poorly, the person will reach out to the Walgreens organizer and tell them that the pharmacy staff they represent will be “100% behind” the nationwide walkout effort.
A CVS spokesperson said the company is “not seeing any unusual activity” regarding unplanned pharmacy closures or pharmacist walkouts. The spokesperson added that the company is working with pharmacists to directly address any concerns they might have.
Pharmacy staff participating in the nationwide effort would also hold demonstrations outside the stores that workers walk out of, according to the people who spoke to CNBC.
Jerominksi said organizers are planning to hold rallies in areas that will see the “largest scale” of participation in the walkout, but no specific store locations have been finalized. He added that rallies were the biggest thing that was missing from the recent Walgreens and CVS walkouts.
In addition to those rallies and the walkouts, Jerominski and the Walgreens organizer said they are considering pushing for unionization for pharmacy staff not currently represented by one. 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, according to Jerominski.
Organizers are in talks with multiple existing unions, but there is no concrete agreement yet, according to Jerominski. He 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. UFCW directed CNBC to a statement released Thursday in support of the recent walkouts staged by Walgreens and CVS pharmacy staff.
Main concerns of pharmacy staff
Retail pharmacy staff are concerned that companies like Walgreens and CVS are placing unreasonable demands on employees, without providing enough staffing or resources for them to safely and responsibly execute tasks such as filling prescriptions. The staff believes those working conditions ultimately put patients at risk of serious harm.
“What we’re doing in our stores is not safe for our customers,” the CVS employee told CNBC. “Improve our working conditions so we can improve the safety and the confidence of our customers that come into our stores.”
In addition to filling and verifying prescriptions, pharmacy employees often have to juggle patient phone calls, administer a growing number of vaccines, work with insurance companies on issues such as copays and reimbursements, perform rapid Covid and flu testing and deal with frustrated customers who are seeing longer wait times due to understaffing.
One Walgreens pharmacy technician in Minnesota, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, likened work shifts to running a marathon. They told CNBC that pharmacy staff always go home “completely overworked and exhausted” after a day of juggling dozens of different tasks.
Walgreens pharmacy employees are asking the company to offer more transparency around how staff hours are assigned to stores, dedicate training time for each new hire and allocate job tasks in a way that matches the staffing levels of a given store location, according to the Walgreens organizer.
Currently, the company sets task expectations based on the number of team members each pharmacy should have instead of how much staff the locations actually have, the organizer said.
Walgreens said it does not set task-based metrics for staff, noting that the company eliminated it last year.
Pharmacy staff across different chains are also hoping that company management can address their concerns in a more timely fashion, Jerominski said.
“Pharmacists are kind of on an island where you don’t feel much support,” Jerominski said. “It feels like yelling into the void. You might call a supervisor or a district manager, but you might get a response a week later.”
A survey from last year shows that pharmacy workers who bring complaints to management sometimes get little response. The survey, conducted by the American Pharmacists Association and the National Alliance of State Pharmacy Associations, noted that there are “no open mechanisms” for pharmacists and other pharmacy staff to discuss workplace issues with supervisors and management.
Vaccine appointments, tensions with customers
Some Walgreens pharmacy staff told CNBC that the rollout of new vaccines this fall, including shots for Covid, flu and respiratory syncytial virus, has made their workload heavier than usual.
One pharmacist, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said it is difficult to handle the recent influx of vaccine appointments, especially since those respiratory virus shots all arrived in the U.S. around the same time. The pharmacist described having appointments every 10 minutes, with some patients getting several shots at once.
The pharmacist also described a recent work shift where they were the only immunizer on staff, which made it nearly impossible for them to fill prescriptions and complete other tasks.
Jerominski, the organizer and pharmacy labor advocate, claimed that immunizations have become a priority for Walgreens and CVS since the margins on vaccines are significantly higher than the average prescription.
One Walgreens pharmacist from Colorado, who also requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, also highlighted how staff increasingly have to deal with frustrated customers.
That pharmacist said the lack of staffing and resources at some locations can lead to medication delays and errors or longer wait times for appointments, which sets employees up for negative interactions with patients.
The Colorado pharmacist said patients are “rightfully upset” when they can’t pick up critical medications in a quick and seamless way. But it can get emotionally taxing for employees when patients target all of their anger and frustration on staff, the pharmacist said.
Patients can get aggressive or even violent in rare cases, and it’s a “very long process” to get those customers banned from a store to protect employees, the Colorado pharmacist said.