Pharmacy workers stand up and fight back against corporate greed
@PhedUpPharms via Twitter (X)

CHICAGO—If you’ve visited a pharmacy recently to get vaccinated, pick up a prescription, or seek medical advice, you probably noticed how overwhelmed, short-staffed, and stressed out the workers were. With a dramatic increase in workload, due to major cutbacks in staffing levels, many pharmacy workers are placed in situations which will inevitably result in medication errors and missed chances to prevent possibly fatal mistakes.

The nation’s pharmacists are fed up! “Every night I pray for guidance from God to avoid oversights,” a Detroit-based pharmacist told People’s World. The enormous volume of prescriptions she handles with very limited help during her 11-hour shift is what’s behind her nightly practice of asking for divine intervention to ensure her patients’ care.

With similar concerns, the National Pharmacists Association-LIUNA will be demonstrating at 46 Walgreens stores here. NPhA-LIUNA represents nearly 900 pharmacists employed by Walgreens in Chicagoland. The action commenced on April 18, and the main push is to demand better pay and working conditions for Walgreens pharmacists. The series of coordinated actions is dubbed the “Phed Up Pharmacists” tour.

The NPhA-LIUNA represented pharmacists have been working without a contract for the last nine months. According to the union, over the past seven years, Walgreens pharmacists have only received a 2% wage increase, despite a 25% increase in inflation. The pay of Walgreens CEO Tim Wentworth is $1.5 million with $12.5 million in stock—407 times the average worker’s pay.

The Chicago pharmacists’ fight back is part of a larger trend in the healthcare industry in general, and the retail pharmacy field in particular. Last fall, pharmacists and technicians staged a three-day walk-out at Walgreens and CVS chains across the country. The action was dubbed “Pharmageddon.”

Pharmacists are a major driver of corporate profit. In 2023, 74% of Walgreens’ sales came from pharmacy and only 26% from retail.

Pharmacists are medical professionals with an average of six years of higher education. They take an oath to hold patient safety in the highest regard when preparing and dispensing medication. But rising pressures inside the nation’s largest retail chains have forced pharmacists to “choose between that oath and their job,” the Detroit pharmacist told People’s World.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians have been subject to inconsistent scheduling. They are asked to provide more patient services such as rapid viral testing, consistent medication management, consultation phone calls, refill quotas, and a surge in vaccine administrations pressured by corporate shareholders—all with no additional staff support.

This situation is not unique to Walgreens. Pharmacy retailers CVS, Rite Aid, Kroger, and Walmart have consistently decreased staffing in pharmacies while simultaneously burdening their essential workers with added tasks and metrics goals.

According to a report by USA Today, Khalil Haidar, the head of the division at CVS in the Texas-Louisiana district, issued a warning about potential disciplinary action and job cuts if pharmacists were unable to achieve corporate metrics objectives, such as increasing store memberships, promoting more prescription pickups, and administering more vaccinations. He also threatened that pharmacists could face consequences if they did not convince at least five customers (per day) to receive a flu shot before the official start of flu season.

“And many patients, they are ignorant.” the corporate honcho Khalil Haidar said on a staff call. “They don’t know what the flu is… How are you going to convince them? How can you persuade them? That’s your job as a pharmacist.”

In the pharmacy setting, all tasks are measured and timed against corporate metrics objectives that prioritize speed and maximum profit. Workers who do not complete prescription orders quickly, answer phone calls fast enough, or promote vaccination sales “effectively” may face disciplinary measures, reassignment, or termination. The result for those working in the pharmacy is that patient care is not really a main concern.

“We’re essentially operating on a skeleton crew right now. We have a higher prescription count than ever but with much less help than ever. These pharmacy corporations are making a killing off us,” a pharmacy technician based in Detroit told People’s World.

For years, state regulatory bodies in charge of pharmacies have refrained from involvement. Their primary concern is the protection of consumers, not pharmacists, and they have traditionally deemed many complaints—including staffing, metrics, and workload—as outside their “domain.” These issues are categorized as business decisions rather than matters of patient safety.

Pharmacy workers are essential workers; they played a crucial role in the country’s recovery from the COVID crisis. In the union’s press release, Joe Pignataro, NPhA-LIUNA President and full-time pharmacist, emphasized the need for a fair wage increase that properly acknowledges their contributions, as well as more consistent scheduling, reliable staff support, and proper training.

So if you’re in the Chicagoland region, be on the lookout for the “Phed Up Pharmacist” tour. Stand in solidarity with these essential workers as they fight for a fair contract, proper staffing levels, and a balanced work-life dynamic. Make it known at pharmacies that you support their valuable contributions. It is time to prioritize people over profits.

The “Phed Up Pharmacists” tour is scheduled to conduct demonstrations at two or three Walgreens stores on weekdays for the next four weeks and will conclude with a demonstration and press conference at Walgreens headquarters on May 10th.

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Cameron Harrison
Cameron Harrison

Cameron Harrison is a Labor Education Coordinator for the People Before Profits Education Fund. Based in Detroit, he was a grocery worker and a proud member of UFCW Local 876, where he was a shop steward. He writes about the labor and people’s movements and is a die-hard Detroit Lions fan.