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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Why pharmacy workers at CVS, Walgreens are walking out

A Walgreens store in the Brooklyn borough of New York is seen March 21. Walgreens employees at a few locations staged walkouts Monday, as did CVS workers.  (Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg)
By Aaron Gregg, Lisa Rein and Jaclyn Peiser Washington Post

Walgreens and CVS workers staged walkouts Monday, organizers say, marking the second such job action this month by pharmacy staffs demanding better working conditions in the face of an 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.

A Walgreens spokesman said only two of the retailer’s roughly 9,000 stores had been affected late Wednesday morning.

Later in the day, CVS spokeswoman Amy Thibault said the pharmacy chain “is serving patients across its footprint and isn’t seeing any unusual activity regarding unplanned pharmacy closures or pharmacist walkouts.” She said the company is engaged in a “continuous two-way dialogue” with its 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 staff, 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 in an email. “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 Kansas City 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.

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

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, the CVS spokesperson, said the company is making targeted investments to address feedback from pharmacists. That includes enabling teams to schedule additional support as needed, enhance its hiring of both pharmacists and technicians, and strengthen its training.

“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.