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Retail pharmacy workers in Kansas and Missouri are unhappy with their pay and working conditions

A CVS pharmacy at 9521 Mission Road in Overland Park, Kansas. This location, and about a dozen others in the Kansas City metro, closed temporarily this fall due to staff walkouts.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
Kansas News Service
A CVS pharmacy at 9521 Mission Road in Overland Park, Kansas. This location, and about a dozen others in the Kansas City metro, closed temporarily this fall due to staff walkouts.

The University of Kansas surveyed more than 200 workers in chain retail settings about their job satisfaction. “They've been treated, in a lot of cases, like a commodity instead of a health care worker,” one industry professional said.

Pharmacy work is a tough job, according to Amanda Applegate with the Kansas Pharmacists Association. There are, of course, many prescriptions to fill. Filling those also means keeping in mind whether the prescribed medication is best for the patient, whether it is covered by their insurance and more.

And it gets more difficult when it’s inside a bustling retail store, like Walgreens or Target. That’s a recipe for a hectic job.

“If you are in a hospital environment, you don't necessarily have somebody walking by you and asking where the steaks on sale are or where the Tylenol is,” Applegate said. “There is an additional layer of distraction.”

Applegate said retail pharmacists and pharmacy technicians also struggle with performance quotas set by their employers.

A study by professors at the University of Kansas illustrates the differences between pharmacy work in retail and independent or hospital settings.

The study, recently published in the Journal of American Pharmacists Association, surveyed 129 pharmacists and 111 pharmacy technicians at both retail and independent pharmacies in Kansas and Missouri.

Angela Gist-Mackey was the lead author of the paper. Her team began collecting data in 2019 and finished in 2020, just before the pandemic. Survey participants were categorized into three pharmacy settings: retail, independent and health care systems.

Going into the study, Gist-Mackey hypothesized that a person’s role in a pharmacy would determine their overall satisfaction.

“But surprisingly, that was not the case. Role didn't predict any of that,” Gist-Mackey said. “In fact, it was more of the context that people were working in.”

The survey showed that pharmacy workers in retail situations, though paid the same as their independent or hospital pharmacist counterparts, were far less satisfied with pay and benefits.

“Maybe it's because what I have to put up with in my chain pharmacy workplace doesn't seem worth the pay,” Gist-Mackey said.

Applegate agrees. She now serves as director of practice development for the Kansas Pharmacists Association, but she previously worked in the retail pharmacy field for more than a decade. Applegate said the workload at retail pharmacies can often be hard to handle, especially because a lot of retail pharmacies only staff one pharmacist at a time and don’t schedule enough technicians to help.

Retail workers on strike

Concerns about working conditions, pay and staffing came to a head this fall, when workers at CVS and Walgreens stores across the nation walked out. At least a dozen CVS locations in the Kansas City metro, on both sides of the state line, shuttered temporarily while workers were on strike.

Applegate said work safety was one of the No. 1 priorities for striking workers. She said sometimes, retail pharmacists have up to 1,000 prescriptions to fill and not enough support to safely fill them. In addition, they often work long hours without breaks.

“It's oftentimes very hard to step away from that workflow to go to the bathroom, to get a bite to eat, to take a breath after something very difficult has happened,” she said. “That day-to-day environment is a pressure cooker in a lot of cases.”

Applegate said to her knowledge, Walgreens and CVS have made some changes to how stores are operated, but pharmacists are still spread thin.

Gist-Mackey said when she and her team presented their work to editors at the Journal of American Pharmacists editors, they received pushback on their findings.

“One of the reviewers … said, ‘You're taking a stab at retail pharmacies, specifically. I'm not sure that your data really supports this,’” Gist-Mackey said.

The editors dropped their complaints when the strikes began, Gist-Mackey said.

She imagines conditions have gotten worse for retail pharmacy workers post-pandemic, as they are essential health care workers.

Holidays pile on stress

During her time at a retail pharmacy, Applegate said her worst shift was on Christmas Eve.

“It's a time of a lot of anxiety; tensions are running high in a lot of cases anyways,” Applegate said. “So something very small may turn into a very big thing that leads to a patient harassing a pharmacist or a member of their staff.”

Applegate said overall, harassment of pharmacists and pharmacy workers is on the rise. During this holiday season, Applegate said she’s received more calls from pharmacy workers reporting harassment in the past two weeks than she has in the past year.

In Applegate’s opinion, a lot of the harassment is because the public does not see pharmacy workers as health care professionals.

“They've been treated, in a lot of cases, like a commodity instead of a health care worker,” she said.

Applegate said customers sometimes don’t understand that pharmacists cannot control things like medicine prices.

“I think the best thing is to be kind to everybody,” Applegate said.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga reports on health disparities in access and health outcomes in both rural and urban areas.
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