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CVS pharmacists walking off the job to protest working conditions

CVS Health is contending with walkouts by pharmacists protesting working conditions and closing down multiple drugstores in and around Kansas City, Missouri.

The nation’s largest retail pharmacy chain saw a dozen of its locations shut down unexpectedly on Sept. 21 and Sept. 22 in protests that spread this week to include nearly two dozen pharmacists across the Kansas City metropolitan area, published reports and advocates say. 

“These issues have been ongoing for over 10 years across all the big chains, and exponentially worsened during the pandemic with increased services such as COVID vaccinations and testing while simultaneously having staff cuts and hours shortened,” Lannie Duong, a clinical pharmacist in California who advocates on behalf of pharmacy workers, said in an email.

CVS said the walkouts aren’t affecting its business. “Our ability to serve patients in Kansas City was not impacted today, and we are not seeing any abnormal activity in other markets,” a spokesperson said Wednesday in an emailed statement. CVS also said it was providing additional resources to support stores “that may be at capacity.”

CVS sent Chief Pharmacy Officer Prem Shah to meet with the pharmacists on Tuesday, but she reneged on an agreement to issue a public apology to employees and customers, according to Bled Tanoe, an independent pharmacist speaking for organizers of the protests. 

Staff shortages

Pharmacists are fed up amid a backlog of prescriptions and having insufficient staff to answer phones and administer flu and new COVID-19 vaccinations, said Tanoe, a former Walgreens pharmacist who created the hashtag #pizzaisnotworking in 2021 to decry working conditions that she argued could not be addressed by supplying a free meal for staff.

Pharmacy chains in the past employed technicians and clerks to answer calls and handle other tasks to keep operations running smoothly. 

“At CVS and the other stores now there is only you and hopefully one technician in there, and as soon as the phone rings, one part of the work flow is taken out, and if the phone rings again it’s shut down completely,” said Chris Adkins, an advocate and pharmacist who left CVS after nine months and now works at Capsule, an independent startup pharmacy in Los Angeles. 

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The difficulties faced by pharmacists are not new, but have worsened in recent years, according to the Kansas Pharmacists Association. More than half, or 57%, of pharmacists surveyed by the Kansas Board of Pharmacy reported not having enough time to do their job safely and effectively. Not having enough staff and employer-ordered quotas were the biggest factors cited.

The association “is aware of and supports pharmacists and pharmacy personnel that are protesting unsafe working conditions that put their patients’ health at risk,” the state professional group said Monday in a statement on its website.

“When pharmacies are paid for the number of prescriptions that cross their counters instead of the clinical knowledge and services they provide for their patients, the system inappropriately values medication volume over safety and quality of health care,” the Kansas Pharmacists stated. 

Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians in California “stand with our colleagues across the nation who are bravely protesting poor working conditions to preserve and protect patient safety,” the California Pharmacists Association said Wednesday in a news release

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