Some pharmacy workers at Walgreens, one of the nation’s largest drugstore chains, say they are planning another walkout at the end of October, and organizers are hoping this time the protest spreads nationwide.
Workers have already been staging walkouts in scattered cities to protest working conditions that they say put customer safety at risk. The actions so far this month closed a handful of pharmacies briefly, and slowed business at several others; Walgreens told CNN the impact has been “minimal.”
Now some pharmacy staff and organizers in multiple states have confirmed to CNN that they’re planning another walkout, and picket lines, with a window from October 30 to November 1 to protest staffing levels and other issues.
Shane Jerominski, an independent pharmacist who used to work for Walgreens and is one of the walkout’s organizers, told CNN that he has been working with representatives from unions to plan demonstrations beginning the day before Halloween – 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 that they support the organizers planning a walkout and protests. So does SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West.
“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. “We support all health care workers who are organizing and taking a stance to improve staffing.”
Organizers told CNN that they’re still holding out hope that Walgreens will work with them to reach a solution to problems they say range from understaffing to a rapidly expanding workload to low pay.
In a statement to CNN, Walgreens said about 20 stores out of about 9,000 had “disruptions over three days,” Oct. 9-11. Walgreens walkout organizers told CNN that their tally is much higher, with about 600 employees participating.
Walgreens just named a new CEO, Tim Wentworth, who praised pharmacists during the company’s Oct. 12 earnings call – but made no mention of the walkouts the previous days. Walgreens also announced that it expected to cut at least another $1 billion in costs next year. Shares of the company have fallen over the last year, to about $21 at Friday’s close from $41 in November 2022.
Walgreens did not respond to CNN’s requests for an interview with Wentworth.
Meanwhile, the company told CNN that it won’t “speculate on potential workforce disruptions,” and added that “our ongoing efforts since the onset of the pandemic have included an emphasis on how we recruit, retain, and reward our pharmacy staff.”
Fraser Engerman, senior director of external relations at Walgreens, said the company is aggressively taking steps to address concerns about workloads, wages, hiring bonuses, flexible schedules and creating dedicated positions to manage inventory and administrative tasks for pharmacy teams. “And we’re empowering store and district leaders to pause routine activities during this busy immunization season to focus on the clinical care and services our patients require,” the company said in a statement.
The following three Walgreens employees told CNN their reasons for walking out. All asked not to be identified by name due to fears of reprisal.
While Walgreens declined to respond to their specific points, Engerman added that the company was “regularly listening to feedback and responding, learning, and implementing what we can, when we can, to address concerns.”
A pharmacy manager in Oregon knew the pharmacy couldn’t run without him there – so when he called out Oct. 9, the pharmacy closed.
He reopened the pharmacy the next day, he said, because “there’s a lot of people on my staff that want to work, and they need to work.”
But it’s an everyday struggle to manage the pharmacy, he said.”They expect you to do walk-ins on top of appointments for people, so you can imagine how many immunizations. And we’re supposed to look up people’s vaccine histories. And then there’s just one pharmacist, and they have to counsel the patients, they have to take the phone calls from doctors, they still have to fill prescriptions,” he said. (While pharmacy technicians complete many tasks around the pharmacy, they can’t advise on medication.)
“People either walk out of the job or they just don’t show up or quit,” he said. “We’ve had pharmacists leaving in tears and never come back.”
A pharmacy technician and immunizer in Wisconsin described her typical day to CNN: “The pharmacy counter has patients lined up to the freezer section of the store, the drive-thru has stacks of cars nearing the neighboring street, 50 prescriptions are waiting to be typed, 650 prescriptions are printed on the filling station, 200 prescriptions are waiting to be verified for sale by the pharmacist, dozens of warehouse totes filled with medication are waiting to be put on our shelves, hundreds of rejected insurance claims are needing to be resolved, hundreds of prescriptions are overdue, dozens of patient care calls are overdue, hundreds of out-of-stock medications are needing attention, dozens of prescriptions are needing to be mailed, dozens of prescriptions are needing to be prepared for DoorDash and dozens of prescription requests are sitting in the message queue.” And the pharmacy is expected to act much like “a fully-functioning vaccination clinic.”
“We are failing every day to meet our patients’ needs and they do not hesitate to let us know,” she said. “It’s really exhausting to get yelled at multiple times a day and then have to help the next customer with just a smiling face,” she said. But she doesn’t blame customers for being angry.
“It’s the work environment, it’s the way that the industry is built, that disappoints all of us. The bottom line is that we’re not servicing these customers to our fullest capabilities and the reason is that we’re overwhelmed.”
A pharmacy technician in Oklahoma walked out during the last protest because she felt like there was no other option.
Her team cares deeply about their customers, she told CNN. She even had a coworker who came in the day after her father died because “she didn’t want us to suffer or the patients to suffer,” the technician said.
The walkout, she explained, came from that same place of extreme care.
“If we could get one thing out of this, it would be for Walgreens HR to realize that we are severely understaffed for the workload they expect us to do,” she said. “It puts our physical and mental health at risk, and most importantly it puts our patients in danger. One individual is going the work of four. We don’t want raises; we want help.”
For all of this, she makes about $16.50 an hour; “I’m only making $1.50 more than our 16-year-old cashier,” she said.
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