Pharmacy Employees: Essential Workers Amid Pandemic but Often Overlooked

September 18, 2020

Pharmacy technicians work alongside pharmacists to meet unprecedented demands during these times. They are not expendable.

Since I’ve been teaching a class of 55 physician assistants for the past 15 years, I’ve come to know some of them very well. One of my former students and I were discussing the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) mayhem. He said, “It has taught me the diƒfference between essential versus expendable personnel.”

He went on to say that since the lockdown began in this country, essential personnel have been going to work. Whether you are a kid stocking shelves at the grocery store, a police o†fficer patrolling the streets, a physician seeing patients, or a pharmacist filling prescriptions, we are all described as being essential. Sounds like a big compliment. However, my physician assistant friend suggested that “expendable” is a more appropriate term.

My friend went on to add that the truly “essential” personnel are walled oƒff safely in their homes, sitting on their couches with their laptops, working remotely. They must be important—say, more important than those of us at work—because they are aƒfforded much more protection than those of us stocking shelves, seeing patients, patrolling streets, or filling prescriptions, he said.

I was amazed to find out that even the folks who run the pharmacy benefi t managers (PBMs) are working from home. It is too dangerous for them to come to our stores to do an audit, so they fax us a “bench audit” to fill out. They can continue to underpay us, for example, by $60 for a sight-saving medication, as I discussed in my June essay, from the comfort of their living room couch.

Yes, the managed care organizations are also working from home, away from this deadly virus. From the safety of their homes, they continue to underpay us $0.79 for a lisinopril prescription. So, we pharmacies lose $60 providing a sight-saving drug, get paid less than a buck for a month’s worth of blood pressure medications, and lose over a grand on a bench audit. What do we get for our eƒfforts?

One student pharmacist I was talking with told me her boyfriend was making his bonus $600 a week for unemployment. That is $15 an hour for a 40-hour week. My “essential” pharmacy technicians are salivating at that fi gure. The government decided to give hazard pay of $3 an hour to those who worked during the shutdown, except for pharmacy technicians. I immediately contacted our state senator, Judy Ward, who quickly sent a letter to Pennsylvania’s governor.

“We find it hard to believe that the program considers food retail facilities (grocery and convenience stores) an eligible industry but not pharmacies and drug stores,” wrote senators Lisa Boscola, D-Bethlehem, and Ward, R-Hollidaysburg.“ The employees of pharmacies/drug stores were just as much on the front line as employees in grocery stores during the COVID-19 pandemic and faced an equally high risk given that these businesses remained open during the emergency order when other businesses were closed.”1

My pharmacy technicians who worked diligently through this crisis, never missing a day of work, waiting on sick people, and providing lifesaving medications, were not considered “essential.” Pharmacy technicians work alongside pharmacists to meet unprecedented demands during these times. They are not expendable.

Reference

1. Thompson C. Pennsylvania’s new hazard pay program will mean green for some; but leaves others green with envy. PennLive. Published July 23, 2020. Accessed August 10, 2020. https://www.pennlive.com/business/2020/07/pennsylvanias-new-hazard-pay-program-will-mean-green-for-some-but-leaves-others-green-with-envy.html

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