Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
In this November 2022 photo, a pedestrian walks into a CVS Pharmacy in Washington, DC.
Employees at some of the largest drugstore chains in the United States staged a new series of walkouts across the country Monday to demand the companies fix what employees say are harsh working conditions that make it difficult for them to safely fill prescriptions, and which could put the health of their customers at risk.
Walgreens and CVS employees are mostly not unionized, which makes a largescale walkout difficult to execute. Staff and organizers in multiple states confirmed to CNN that the walkouts have begun and will take place through November 1, but it remains unclear how widespread the action is.
Workers at Walgreens and CVS have previously staged walkouts in Arizona, Washington, Massachusetts and Oregon in September and early October. Those work actions closed a handful of pharmacies briefly, and slowed business at several others. At the time, Walgreens told CNN the impact has been “minimal.”
Shane Jerominski, an independent pharmacist in Southern California who used to work for Walgreens and is one of the walkout’s organizers, told CNN on Monday that organizers are already overwhelmed by calls about closed pharmacies.
During prior walkouts, pharmacy staff feared retaliation from their bosses and corporate leadership, said Jerominski. But there was no reported reprisal from leadership, which, he says, has emboldened more staff to participate. However, some employees who may still be concerned about a company reprisal are calling out sick instead of walking out, he said.
Jerominski confirmed to CNN that there have been at least 25 store closures. He expects momentum to build over the next three days and culminate Wednesday with a planned demonstration outside Walgreens’ headquarters in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield.
Jerominski also said that a GoFundMe page, initially started to help unionization efforts among pharmacy staff, had reached more than $60,000 and was being used as an emergency relief fund for workers who needed financial help in order to call out of work and participate in the walkout.
He says representatives from unions are helping to plan the walkouts which were specifically scheduled to begin the day before Halloween because it’s a particularly busy time for pharmacy chains as cold and flu season begins and demand for vaccinations soars.
A spokesperson from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union told CNN on Sunday that it supports the organizers planning a walkout and protests. The Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West also said it supports the walkout and protests.
“UFCW members and staff have been communicating with many of the CVS and Walgreens workers who have been taking actions to stand up for their rights on the job. We are the largest Retail Pharmacy Union in North America, and as such, where workers struggle, we stand ready to assist,” Dave Young, UFCW International vice-president and director of organizing, told CNN.
“Health care workers and consumers are experiencing unprecedented strain caused by understaffing by health care corporations,” Renée Saldaña, press secretary of UHW-West Health, said in a statement to CNN last week. “We support all health care workers who are organizing and taking a stance to improve staffing.”
The American Pharmacists Association, an advocacy group for pharmacy workers across the country, said in a statement Monday that it “stands with every pharmacist who participated in the walkout today.”
APhA CEO Michael Hogue recently traveled to Kansas City to meet with pharmacy staff and executives from CVS.
“For far too long, employers have made the situation worse than it needed to be. Supervisors who are not pharmacists do not understand the needs of care teams and make unreasonable demands on time-based productivity,” he wrote on Monday.
“Quotas on the number of prescriptions filled per hour or vaccines administered per day, or even time to answer the phone, simply fail to recognize that the pharmacist–patient relationship is not transactional. It is a special covenant—and supervisors who distill everything down to numbers and time metrics are destroying that relationship in the name of profitability. This must stop immediately.”
Walgreens and CVS representatives told CNN on Monday that they haven’t seen much of a disruption to operations. “We’re committed to providing access to consistent, safe, high-quality health care to the patients and communities we serve and are engaging in a continuous two-way dialogue with our pharmacists to directly address any concerns they have,” said Amy Thibault, a spokesperson for CVS Pharmacy.
One Michigan-based registered pharmacist told CNN she tendered her resignation Monday as part of the planned work action. She said she had worked as a pharmacist for 35 years, but decided to leave Walgreens after seven years over a number of workplace issues, including refusal to grant sick leave, severe understaffing and no lunch breaks, even while working solo 14-hour shifts.
CNN independently confirmed her employment and resignation letter.
A Walgreens spokesperson told CNN that they “recognize the incredible work our pharmacists do every day, especially this time of year when there is increased demand for their services across communities.”
“Our leaders are in our pharmacies regularly, listening to concerns and frustrations and responding to feedback. We have taken steps over the last two years to improve pharmacists’ experience, advance the profession and enable them to provide the high value care they were trained to do. Nearly all of our 25,000 pharmacists continue to serve their customers and communities this week, and we thank them for it,” the spokesperson said.
Organizers, meanwhile, have encouraged advocates for pharmacy workers and pharmacy safety to join their protests.
Loretta Boesing, a patient advocate and the founder of Unite for Safe Medications, told CNN that she plans to join the protest Wednesday at Walgreens’ corporate headquarters. She said her son is a liver transplant recipient who needs to take medication every 12 hours.
“I never thought I would have to become an advocate to make sure he could get his medication safely,” Boesing said. “I see the pharmacy closures and increasing numbers of pharmacy deserts, and it’s sad and terrifying to see pharmacies at this state. I want to ensure that pharmacies are safe, and I appreciate all the pharmacists who are using their voices to help patients.”
While technicians complete many tasks around the pharmacy, they can’t advise on medication and many pharmacies have just one registered pharmacist scheduled per shift. Pharmacies can close abruptly close when a pharmacist can’t work.
Boesing said she’s also reaching out and urging other patients to support the Wednesday demonstration. “Pharmacists working in understaffed pharmacies face so much verbal abuse. Too many patients take their frustrations out on pharmacists, so I think it would be great to get more vocal support from patients.”