WOONSOCKET, R.I. — Employees at CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid pharmacies across the US launched a three-day walkout on Monday, organizers said, to apply pressure to executives to recruit more people and improve working conditions.
Shane Jerominski, a California-based pharmacy labor advocate and independent pharmacist who used to work for Walgreens, told CNBC the walkout could affect “hundreds” of stores. He said organizers do not have a definitive count of employees who will participate in the effort this week, but some stores are expected to hold rallies outside a few locations in different parts of the country.
Jerominski and a second organizer, whom many media outlets agreed not to name because of fear of retaliation, said they are pushing for unionization of pharmacy staff who are not yet represented. According to CNBC, however, there are so far no agreements for pharmacy workers to join a labor group.
It’s unclear if many New England-based pharmacists at the retail chains are not reporting to work this week.
Amy Thibault, a spokeswoman for Woonsocket-based CVS Health, told the Globe the pharmacy chain was “not seeing any unusual activity” regarding unplanned pharmacy closures or pharmacist walkouts.
“We’re making targeted investments to address their key concerns, including enabling teams to schedule additional support as needed, enhancing pharmacist and technician recruitment and hiring, and strengthening pharmacy technician training,” said Thibault.
A spokesperson for Walgreens said only two locations had experienced workforce disruptions as of Monday evening. Representatives with Rite Aid could not be immediately reached for comment.
The American Pharmacists Association said in a statement Monday that it supports the stand pharmacists took this week, saying corporate chain pharmacies have asked pharmacists to “work without adequate staffing.”
American Pharmacists Association CEO Michael D. Hogue pointed to the findings of a national workplace and well-being tool that surveys chain pharmacy employees and patients. The report, he said, indicated that workplace conditions are the primary reason for negative experiences and that inadequate staffing is one of the leading causes of pharmacist burnout.
This week’s work action is the third strike by pharmacy employees in the several weeks, last month, but tension between pharmacists and their corporate employers has been mounting since the pandemic began.
In September, pharmacists in at least a dozen Kansas City-area CVS stores did not show up to work for two days. They planned to strike a third day, but the company’s chief pharmacy officer promised to fill open positions and increase staffing levels, according to the Associated Press.
Earlier this month, pharmacy staff at Walgreens in New York City also staged a walkout, alleging poor working conditions were putting employees and patients at risk.
“We’ve had days where I have been at least 500 prescriptions behind,” Walgreens pharmacist Nathan Fuller told Fox 5 NY. “So that’s about several days of prescriptions that I cannot fill. I can barely answer phone calls.”
In a statement to the Globe on Monday, Walgreens spokesman Marty Maloney said the company, which employs nearly 25,000 pharmacists, recognizes “the incredible work our pharmacists do every day, especially this time of year when there is increased demand for their services across our communities.”
“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,” he added.
These latest labor actions come as the industry contends with the financial fallout from settlements linked to the opioid epidemic, increased competition, and other problems.
Earlier this month, Rite Aid filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection amid falling sales and mounting debt from lawsuits that alleged the company helped fuel a public health crisis by knowingly filling unlawful prescriptions.