Signs offering vaccines for COVID-19 are seen outside a CVS pharmacy in Washington, DC.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images
Many pharmacy employees at some of the largest drugstore chains in the U.S. say they are reaching a tipping point.
In addition to verifying, filling and dispensing prescriptions, pharmacists and support personnel they are responsible for administering vaccines, correcting insurance issues, transferring prescriptions to other pharmacies and caring for dozens of patients in stores and over the phone, among other tasks. These workers said they are concerned that companies like it Walgreens and CVS place unreasonable demands on them, without providing enough staff or resources to safely perform their duties.
Frustrated by what they describe as increasing workloads, understaffing and cuts to their hours, pharmacy staff from Walgreens locations across the country and CVS stores in Kansas City area have walked off the job in recent weeks — and some employees plan to walk off again from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1.
CNBC spoke with employees at both Walgreens and CVS, including a pharmacist, two pharmacy technicians and a store manager, about what their typical workday looks like. The employees, who all requested anonymity because of retaliation, described ending their shifts exhausted after spending hours juggling dozens of tasks around the pharmacy without enough extra hands to support them.
CVS has more than 30,000 pharmacists and 70,000 pharmacy technicians, while competitor Walgreens has more than 86,000 health care providers, including pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and other health-related professionals. CVS pharmacists do $61.44 an hour on average, while Walgreens pharmacists do $53.85 an hour on average, according to job site Indeed.
A Walgreens spokesperson said the company recognizes the “incredible work our pharmacists and technicians do every day” and has taken several steps in its pharmacies “to ensure our teams can focus on providing optimal patient care.”
The company’s ongoing efforts are focused on how it can recruit, retain and reward pharmacy staff, the spokesperson said. They added that Walgreens has improved technology and consolidated many functions to help maintain the appropriate pharmacy workload.
A CVS spokesperson said the company is facing “unprecedented demand and shortage of clinical workforce in the healthcare industry and [is] making targeted investments in our retail pharmacy business in direct response to feedback from our pharmacy teams.”
These investments include the ability for teams to schedule additional support as needed, enhancing the recruitment of pharmacists and technicians and the recruitment and enhancement of pharmacy technician training, according to the spokesperson. They said these changes will start in November and roll out next year.
Here’s what a typical day looks like for some staff from the two chains, according to accounts related to CNBC.
A Walgreens pharmacist said their shifts range from six to 12 hours three to five days a week. The pharmacist said they usually arrive for work at 8am, an hour before their shift.
The pharmacist usually starts the shift by completing several paperwork tasks, which take about five to 10 minutes.
The pharmacist then checks which medicines have run out. The pharmacist said this task is primarily the responsibility of pharmacy technicians, but is often shouldered because their colleagues are stretched thin with other duties.
The pharmacist also takes about 20 to 30 minutes to check which drugs were not delivered to the pharmacy by drug distributors and calls on patients to let them know when they can expect their prescriptions to be ready.
The pharmacist then spends 10 to 15 minutes canceling vaccination appointments for vaccines the pharmacy does not have in stock, which involves calling patients and redirecting them to other store locations with available vaccines. The pharmacist said Walgreens allows people to schedule appointments for any vaccine online, even if a store location doesn’t have it in stock.
The Walgreens spokesman acknowledged that some pharmacy locations had to reschedule appointments when the vaccines first became available this fall because of supply delays, and added that the chain apologized for any inconvenience caused to consumers. However, the spokesman said all locations had the necessary supply “within days”.
By 9:15 am the vaccine appointments start and continue until 6:45 pm, according to the pharmacist. Their shop usually takes an appointment every 15 minutes, and some patients do up to four shots at a time.
Then the pharmacist and a pharmacy technician juggle shot management with many other tasks. Administering vaccines has become even more difficult in recent months due to the arrival of new Covid and respiratory syncytial virus vaccines.
Among the other duties is addressing the tragic problems associated with insurance coverage for prescriptions, the pharmacist said. Their store receives 100 to 160 insurance issues in their system each day, so the pharmacist spends up to three 30-minute to one-hour chunks of their shift dealing with them.
Both pharmacists and technicians must also address customers in store and over the phone. The pharmacist said they get eight to 10 calls an hour on average, which can last up to 10 to 15 minutes each.
A sign advertises vaccines for COVID-19 (coronavirus) at a Walgreens pharmacy in Somerville, Massachusetts, August 14, 2023.
Brian Snyder | Reuters
All of these duties—along with other secondary responsibilities—are additional to the pharmacist’s primary job of verifying and dispensing prescriptions.
The technician usually handles the first part of this job, which involves processing new prescription orders from physicians.
The pharmacist said they need to check that all the prescription information entered into the system matches what the doctor ordered for a patient. Their store typically gets 300 prescriptions a day, so the pharmacist said they’re processing about 25 an hour. A technician or pharmacist then fills these prescriptions and the pharmacist does a final review to make sure the medications in the bottles are correct.
The pharmacist said they are often interrupted in the course of work given the urgency of other matters. Disorders can create a backlog.
The pharmacist noted that the pharmacy closes for their scheduled lunch break from 1:30 to 2:00 p.m., which they often work. By lunchtime, they often have to deal with new insurance issues or cover other tasks they couldn’t get to while working directly with patients.
Pharmacy technicians are healthcare professionals who work alongside pharmacists to help and support patients.
A CVS pharmacy technician said they usually come into their store at 7:50 a.m., 10 minutes before their eight-hour shift starts. The technician said they usually work with one to two other technicians and a pharmacist during their shift, which he doesn’t think is enough to handle the workload.
The technician said they start their day by processing new prescription orders from doctors – a task they do continuously throughout the day. The technician said they have to match each prescription to the patient’s profile in the CVS system and enter all the correct information before sending it to a pharmacist for review.
The technician also takes care of another part of the process, which includes filling the prescriptions and printing the labels before the pharmacist takes a final look. They said their store’s prescription volume is 600 to 1,000 per day.
The technician said that once their store location opens, they and their colleagues must handle dozens of phone calls from patients and customers waiting to pick up their prescriptions or other essentials through the drive-thru.
In addition to filling prescriptions and caring for patients, the technician said they take turns performing many other tasks throughout the day. Duties include administering vaccines and returning medications not taken by patients to pharmacy shelves.
A CVS Pharmacy sits in a Brooklyn neighborhood on February 8, 2023 in New York City.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images
A technician from Walgreens has similar duties, but his shift is usually from 5 p.m. until 23.00. “You almost walk in chaos.”
Patients often end up waiting for help because of what the Walgreens technician called understaffing at their location. They added that frustrated patients sometimes shout or snap at pharmacy staff, which can be “extremely overwhelming”.
The Walgreens technician said they typically stay longer after their shift to help complete mandatory closing duties, such as taking out trash and disposing of sensitive patient information. After arriving home, they said they were “totally crashing” from exhaustion.
Some employees who do not have technical responsibilities in the pharmacy may end up helping stressed pharmacists and technicians.
A CVS store manager said three to four days a week they work at the front of the store from 8 a.m. until 12 p.m. and then assist in their location’s pharmacy until 9 p.m. The manager also has a pharmacy technician license, which allows them to perform tasks such as administering vaccines.
The store manager said they are salaried, so they are “essentially working in the pharmacy for free” to give their staff extra support.
“In some shape or form, I or my staff are pushed into an aspect of the business that we didn’t sign up for,” the store manager said. “They’re pushing us back there because we don’t have the resources.”