Pharmacy workers are swapping pills for picket signs

Why drugstore and health care employees across the country have been striking

A protest sign.
CVS and Kaiser Permanente workers have both gone on strike
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

In a year of seemingly never-ending strikes, another group of employees has taken to the picket lines: pharmacy workers. Pharmacists and pharmacy techs from drugstore chain CVS have been striking in Kansas City. Further west, about 75,000 workers, many of them pharmacists, from health care conglomerate Kaiser Permanente have also just gone on strike amid stalled contract talks.

The pharmacy walkouts could have a major impact on the health care sector. Why are these pharmacists striking and how could the issue be resolved?

Why are CVS pharmacists striking?

Pharmacists at CVS, currently the largest drugstore chain in the United States, walked off the job at the end of September to highlight "what they say are unsafe and stressful work conditions tied to a widespread lack of proper staffing," NPR reported. There were reports of staffing shortages at CVS locations around the country, but the walkout was mostly in and around Kansas City, Missouri. 

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At least 12 Kansas City-area CVS stores were forced to close as a result of the strike. The prime grievance from the pharmacists was that CVS had cut back on the time that pharmacy technicians were allowed to work, putting more stress on the pharmacists themselves. "We are open 64 hours a week, and I'm only allowed help for 20 of those hours," one pharmacist told The Kansas City Star. Working alone at the pharmacy for 44 hours of the week is "like running a McDonald's with just one person," the pharmacist added. 

A number of these locations were also cutting their store hours, increasing pharmacists' workloads even more. "They keep stretching us thinner and thinner," and that's putting patients in jeopardy, the pharmacist said, adding that they "regularly work 10-hour days and don't have time to pee or eat lunch. When you are expected to work like that, there are going to be mistakes."

CVS responded quickly to the strike. The company is "focused on addressing the concerns raised by our pharmacists," spokesperson Amy Thibeau told The Associated Press.  Chief Pharmacy Officer Prem Shah also apologized to the pharmacists, writing in a memo that CVS was "taking a series of actions effective immediately," including "providing additional pharmacy resources to support stores that may be at capacity, adjusting appointment availability, providing additional support from our human resources team for filling open positions and increasing staffing levels."

Why are Kaiser Permanente pharmacists striking?

The striking CVS pharmacists have been joined by their West Coast counterparts at Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest health care consortiums in the country, per Forbes.

A coalition of unions has been unable to finalize a new contract with Kaiser. As a result, "a four-day strike of about 75,000 employees" from Kaiser began on Wednesday morning, Axios reported. While these 75,000 workers would include employees from all of Kaiser's divisions, hundreds of them are pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and related employees. The strike is expected to be the largest health care-related walkout in American history. 

The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which is leading the strike, said the walkout was protesting "unfair labor practices and unsafe staffing levels" at Kaiser hospitals and other facilities, USA Today reported. Contract talks to try and address these issues were stalled, and the unions accused Kaiser of "bad-faith bargaining" that did not properly fix staffing issues.

Staffing concerns at Kaiser facilities, as at CVS, have been a major sticking point in contract negotiations amid a broader "health care worker shortage," Forbes noted. Kaiser has already agreed to hire at least 10,000 people in various sectors by the end of the year, and tentative agreements have been reached on union requests such as "better reporting and tracking of job vacancies and increasing travel funding for those continuing their education," Forbes added. Along with the staffing shortages, the unions and Kaiser are haggling over higher wages.

While thousands of workers have walked off the job, Kaiser has said its hospitals and other facilities will stick to normal operations. The company told USA Today it was nevertheless enacting hospital contingency plans "to ensure members continue to receive safe, high-quality care for the duration of the strike."

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