We all know the issues encountered by pharmacists working in chain pharmacies. Twelve-hour workdays or longer, no meal or bathroom breaks, no opportunity to sit during work hours, insufficient tech staffing; ever-increasing demands to meet metrics at the expense of patient safety — this is just the tip of the iceberg; the list goes on and on. For some graphic examples of pharmacists’ working condition, go to www.cvsworker.com. (This is a pharmacists’ site and is not owned by or affiliated with CVS).
Who do you trust?
Decades have passed without remedy. To obtain any relief from intractable working conditions, pharmacists will have to join together. This means unionization.
The problem is, the deck is stacked against the pharmacist the moment the word “union” comes up. The danger of punitive retaliation and possible job loss is real. Not knowing whether they can trust the people around them, and with mortgages, families, and futures on the line, pharmacists don’t even say the word “union” out loud, much less do anything about the problems we all face.
If you can’t trust the pharmacy supervisor, the district manager, the regional manager, HR, the ethics line, or your corporation’s open-door policy, where do you go to air your complaints?
The logical route is to go to your state National Labor Relations Board, and that’s what I did, only to find out eventually that although a corporation may use immoral, unethical, and unfair methods to keep pharmacists in check or to terminate them, such actions are not necessarily illegal. If you are an “at will” employee, as I am, you can be hired or fired as the corporation sees fit.
Management by intimidation
What bothers me most is the way some managers go about firing pharmacists. Key Performance Metrics, which help the corporation, are a double-edged blade, often used to discipline pharmacists for not meeting the often-unattainable scores demanded by management.
Corporations frequently employ management by intimidation. And in getting rid of pharmacists, they may see no obligation to abide by the “last hired, first fired” rule.
I got a hint of this from someone posting at www.cvsworker.com, who wrote the following: “...last in, first out creates the possibility that deadwood will never get out and professional, capable pharmacists will be the first out.”
I’d like to know the criteria corporations are using to establish that a pharmacist is unprofessional, incapable, and deadwood.
What the union rep said
On October 28, 2014, I met with Tony Walter, representative of the IAMAW Union (www.goiam.org). I was looking for information that might be helpful to CVS employees.
Imagine my surprise when he showed me this from the CVS website (go to http://www.cvshealth.com/about-us/corporate-responsibility/2014-interactive-csr-report, click on the 2013 report at the top of the right-hand menu, and scroll down to page 53 of the pdf):
"We have professional and productive relationships with our union colleagues and their representatives, and recognize the rights of our employees to decide whether or not to join a union – which is included in our company policies.”
I tasked Tony Walter whether we might be able to get some help from the Connecticut Board of Pharmacy. During a lengthy discussion, he made it clear that in the past, a national director of pharmacy, a vice president of pharmacy services, a pharmacy regulatory affairs manager, and a quality assurance director of one or more of the five major chains have chaired or led discussions held by the Board of Pharmacy.
I then recalled that when I applied for my license in Connecticut in 2007, one of the board members of the Connecticut Board of Pharmacy who interviewed me eventually turned out to be my pharmacy supervisor. So I certainly wasn’t going to take my grievances against CVS to the Connecticut Board of Pharmacy.
Every piece of information I gathered while I was trying to find out whether pharmacists had anywhere to go with their problems proved to me that pharmacists have nowhere to go. This left only one choice.
It happened in Maine
The stage has now been set for unionization, and the curtain has gone up. Staff pharmacists in the small Shaws-Osco Pharmacy chain in Maine have joined the Teamsters Union Local NO. 340.
This tells us that even pharmacists in small chain pharmacies are dealing with the problems that pharmacists in big chains are having. The difference is, they chose to do something about it. This should encourage us all to do the same.
Will it suffice for one chain alone to unionize? No. Unionization should occur across all chains. Pharmacists working for CVS, Walgreens, Rite-Aid, Target, and Wal-Mart should put aside competitive aspects of the profession and come together to get all retail chains unionized, not just in one state but throughout every state in the Union.
The oppressive working conditions present in chain pharmacies constitute a nationwide epidemic, so we need to seek a nationwide resolution to this problem. If pharmacists in every chain pharmacy across America come together as a united group to unionize, we can take back the profession we signed up for. Even if you’re not in favor of the union, you must be in favor of that.
Not convinced? Think about it like this.
Rotten apples vs. rotten oranges
Let’s suppose a chain pharmacy is a rotten apple, and the union is a rotten orange. If it means:
· I get off salaried status and become an hourly employee who’s paid time-and-a-half for any time worked over 40 hours;
· I get to take a regularly scheduled lunch break;
· I get sick days I can actually use even if I’m not sick;
· I get the appropriate technician help I need;
· The technician gets a salary comparable to the national norm;
· I get a technician during all hours the store is open;
· I get a night technician if I’m working overnights; and
· I get to check prescriptions undisturbed, so I don’t make an error that could kill a patient —
I’ll take the rotten orange.
This last concern, about prescription errors, is the one that scares me the most. I refuse to be the bullet in the chamber of the gun that may one day kill my patient and ruin my life and the lives of that patient’s loved ones. Kill a patient with a bullet or a pill, the end result is the same. That patient is dead.
Right now, in Connecticut, something is being done that has never been done before.
The Connecticut Pharmacists Association, with the help of UCONN’s pharmacy department, has asked the Connecticut Board of Pharmacy to form a task force to bring CVS, Walgreens, Rite-Aid, Target, and Wal-Mart to a meeting to address the problems pharmacists in Connecticut are having with the Key Performance Metrics, among other issues.
If this meeting comes to pass and if we successfully unionize, pharmacists as a whole will finally get relief from a problem that has been going on for decades in the chain pharmacy environment.
Since Feb 5, 2015, six pharmacy managers and a staff pharmacist in my district have quit in less than three months because of the atrocious working conditions at CVS. This alone should make it clear that something is seriously wrong with the chain pharmacy system.
They’ve left us no choice but to unionize. It’s time to act.
What you can do
I suggest that pharmacists across this country contact the heads of their pharmacy schools, their pharmacist associations, and their boards of pharmacy and ask them to follow the lead of the Connecticut Pharmacists Association in contacting their labor relations boards and demanding meetings with chain-pharmacy representatives.
In addition, pharmacists should make all mayors, governors, senators, and congressmen aware of what is going on.
The public also should know the circumstances under which retail chain pharmacists labor, because we are going to need their help. Hopefully, public cooperation and support will help us bring to an end the 3.7 million prescription errors that occur every year and are responsible for killing 100,000 patients annually.
Take the pledge
Print your name clearly, sign it, and also put on the card whether you’re a PIC, staff pharmacist, or floater, the chain you work for, and store number.
The time for talk is over. We’ve been complaining for decades, without relief. Now, it’s time to act. Our profession depends on it.