Burnout, COVID-19 vaccines, and increased demands have come together to create the perfect storm of labor shortages within the industry.
During the last year, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians have been leaving the profession in droves. Driven in part by high rates of burnout, that—coupled with the increased demand for COVID-19 vaccinations and an increase in other point-of-care services—has led to a massive labor shortfall within the profession.
Late last year, pharmacies in some locations began closing locations for several hours a day due to a lack of staffing and a labor force that was already stretched thin.
“We are seeing a fallout from folks that were working in some of these large retail chains that were pressed as far as staffing, and then you layer on a lot of things with COVID-19…. Now they are trying to hire new folks and are backfilling folks who…decided to leave [once] the pandemic began,” said Aaron Dunkel, executive director of the Kansas Pharmacists Association.
To meet the demand, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians have reported aggressive recruiting practices by CVS, Walgreens, and other large pharmacy chains. One managed care pharmacist in Ohio told Drug Topics® that a Walgreens representative emailed her in November, offering a $50,000 sign-on bonus if she agreed to work at the company for at least 2 years.
CVS is actively recruiting non–retail pharmacists, according to one pharmacist who works at a clinic as well as the managed care pharmacist, and is also offering sign-on bonuses in some cases.
Even though CVS is closing 900 stores over 3 years,1 the chain still has a significant need for pharmacy positions.
“Through our recent nationwide hiring effort,2 we hired 23,000 new retail employees, including pharmacy technicians, and are in the process of onboarding another 20,000 candidates,” Matt Blanchette, manager of retail communications at CVS Health, told Drug Topics®.
CVS also raised its minimum hourly wage to $15 per hour last summer, “with even higher starting hourly rates for certain roles, including pharmacy technicians,” Blanchette added
The company is offering affected employees roles at other locations or different opportunities within the company, Blanchette said. “Across the company, we are also actively posting, recruiting, and hiring for a variety of remote or work-from-home positions, which offer many opportunities across our business and the company for colleagues based in an [affected] store,” he noted.
But even with these aggressive recruiting practices, many pharmacy jobs remain unfilled. There were 11,356 job postings across the pharmacy profession through the third quarter of 2021, compared with 9901 job postings through the third quarter of 2020, according to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy’s Pharmacy Workforce Center (PWC).3
“The incentives [that retail pharmacy chains are offering] are great, but do we have the bodies to fill those? That’s one of the challenges,” said Mitchel C. Rothholz, RPh, MBA, chief of Governance & State Affiliates at the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) and executive director of the APhA Foundation.
“Even with what Walgreens and CVS are doing with hiring, in Kansas City some pharmacies were closed when people showed up for booster shots,” Dunkel said. Although some Walgreens and CVS stores are reducing hours or closing the pharmacies for certain periods of time, independent community pharmacies are not doing that, according to Dunkel. “They are not going to close the store. They have enough staff and they try to workflow it appropriately.”
But it is not only retailers that are seeking additional pharmacy staff: the highest number of job postings for the third quarter of 2021 was for clinical pharmacists, with 4201 postings. This was followed by retail pharmacists (3724 postings), “other pharmacist ooccupations” (2104 postings), hospital pharmacists (758 postings), and pharmacy directors (569 postings), according to the PWC.3
This shortfall can primarily be attributed to stress and burnout. “We know there is movement out of [both] retail and hospital pharmacy,” Rothholz said. “There are stresses across the health care system. If these jobs [such as nursing assistants and pharmacy techs] are equitable in pay, why not go into a less stressful job?” he added.
Some pharmacists are retiring earlier or leaving the profession, according to Dunkel. “And we have heard of a few that look to transition from a traditional retail-type job to a mail order or some other type of pharmacy job,” he said.
APhA’s Well-Being Index (WBI) for pharmacy personnel,4 an online self-assessment tool measuring well-being, suicidal ideation, and other factors, found that the national distress percent for pharmacists had reached 33.68% in July 2021.
Mayo Clinic investigators have found that those individuals are at a greater risk for a number of adverse outcomes. These include a 3-fold higher risk of low quality of life, an 8-fold higher risk of burnout, a 2.5-fold higher risk of high fatigue, a 2.5-fold higher risk of intent to leave their current job, and a 2-fold higher risk of medication error, APhA told Drug Topics®.
“People are reporting burnout, fatigue, the intent to leave their jobs, and [employers’] not supporting pharmacists as they need to be supported,” said Sandra Leal, PharmD, MPH, APhA president and executive vice president at Tabula Rasa HealthCare.
Chain pharmacy practices have the highest percentage of pharmacists whose WBI scores indicate the risk of high distress. Employers are too focused on recruitment, according to Lucinda L. Maine, PhD, RPh, executive vice president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy.
“Employers are not doing what they need to be doing on retention, and turnover is expensive,” said Maine.