“Not a day went by where I didn’t question if working conditions were safe”

Retail chain pharmacy staff to stage walkout over unsafe working conditions, low pay

On December 20, pharmacy workers are set to walk out in opposition to brutal working conditions and paltry pay at pharmacy chain conglomerates like CVS, Walgreens and Walmart. While the exact number of workers planning to participate in the job action is unknown, hashtags for the walkout are being shared thousands of times across Twitter and Facebook by pharmacists and pharmacy techs. The protest is being planned outside the confines of the various trade unions which claim to represent these workers.

Awareness of workplace conditions at CVS began growing when pharmacist Bled Marchall Tanoe took the initiative to organize a Facebook group, utilizing the hashtag #pizzaisnotworking, gaining mass attention and support.

The slogan is derived from a tactic used by the chain to pacify workers: buying them pizza and soft drinks and praising them as “heroes” in a condescending attempt to boost morale. However, the coronavirus pandemic has exerted enormous pressure on pharmacy workers, who were already grievously understaffed, overworked, and underpaid.

The planned walkout comes on the heels of recent contract negotiations at CVS with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) which were hailed as a “victory” by the union. The contracts, however, did not address workers’ demands and instead offered “new contract language for a safety committee,” a vague pronouncement that will do nothing for workers’ safety. The agreement included a requirement for a minimum of just two employees working in the storefront at the same time and wage increases of approximately 10 percent over three years, which will entail a major cut in real pay with inflation running near 7 percent.

Workers at the stores must accomplish unreasonable workloads with fluctuating hours for very low pay. Many have reported verbal and physical assault over mask mandates. The job posting site Glassdoor.com cites the average store associate and cashier’s pay at poverty wages of $13 per hour, or just $27,040 per year for workers who work 40 hours per week. Many workers work only part time, however, and are ineligible to receive most benefits, while being required to fulfill the same tasks on their shifts as full-time workers. Pharmacy technicians do not fare much better, with an average annual pay estimated at just $17 per hour, or $35,360 per year.

In contrast to these poverty wages, former CEO Larry Merlo received $36.5 million in total compensation in 2019, over a thousand times the lowest-paid CVS workers, who ensure that the stores run and their products are delivered on a daily basis. Merlo was the highest-paid health insurance CEO that year, according to industry website Fierce Healthcare. CVS acquired health insurance payer Aetna in 2019, establishing the company’s foothold in the private health insurance industry.

The planned wildcat strike of pharmacists across the country is a part of the reemergence of the class struggle in the US and internationally, fueled by growing outrage among workers over the horrific toll of the pandemic and its disastrous handling by the ruling class. Notably, 1,600 pharmacists at Kaiser Permanente recently voted to reject a sellout contract backed by the unions and will possibly go out on strike.

News reports and stories on social media continue to emerge showing the worsening conditions among pharmacy workers across the US.

On September 10, a 41-year old pharmacist from Indiana died of a heart attack while on her shift at CVS. According to one account, Ashleigh Anderson was experiencing chest pain and asked to leave work early. Her supervisor would not allow her to go and mandated that she stay up to two hours until a replacement could be found. Another pharmacist reported that she was threatened with “job abandonment” if she chose to leave. Ashleigh died on the floor with a coworker holding her head and a patient administering CPR. Fear of retaliation has kept many of the employees from speaking more about the tragic incident.

In addition to the inhumane working conditions, pharmacy staff report that patients are also at an increased health risk for medication errors. Already, there have been instances of patients receiving medications prescribed for other patients, resulting in trips to the emergency room.

In September 2020, a 17-year old from Connecticut took what she believed was her asthma prescription. When she went to take a second pill, she noticed she had been given blood pressure medication. As a result, she experienced a headache, nausea, and dizziness. In 2018, a man ended up in the emergency room after he was prescribed ear drops for an eye condition. And in the most severe case, a Florida woman, 85-year-old Mary Scheurman, died in December 2018 after she was accidentally given a strong chemotherapy drug instead of her usual antidepressant.

Many pharmacists have written to their state boards in an effort to call attention to the dangerous situation faced by workers and patients. One pharmacist told the Texas State Board of Pharmacy in April 2020: “I am a danger to the public working for CVS.” Another wrote to the Pennsylvania board: “The amount of busywork we must do while verifying prescriptions is absolutely dangerous. Mistakes are going to be made and patients are going to be the ones suffering.”

Meanwhile, CVS Health, the fourth-largest company in the US according to Forbes, closed their third quarter with a massive $1.59 billion in profit. CEO Karen Lynch, who made well over $11 million in 2020, drew criticism for her out-of-touch tweet in which she reported the earnings, writing, “...I’m thankful for #TeamCVS and inspired by the dedication and heart they bring to the communities we serve.” Lynch was a president and insurance executive at Aetna before she was named Merlo’s successor.

Many pharmacists and pharmacy techs took to Twitter to denounce Lynch’s post.

One user wrote, “What type of CEO desensitizing training… did you ace to be content with the torture ‘non-executive level’ employees (especially pharmacists/techs) undergo in your sweatshop stores. CVS will be historic in destroying the pharmacy industry.”

Another wrote, “Karen I’ve been a worker at CVS for 6 straight years. You all can report HUGE earnings but WON’T pass those earnings on to us techs who work SOLO 40+ hours a week and develop medical problems because of being overworked without ‘enough hours’ to hire more people. Help US instead.”

One former employee, Laura A, wrote, “Not a day went by where I didn’t question if working conditions were safe for both staff & patients. I’d have to work entire 9-12hr shifts ALONE w/ no tech so I can be within budget. Not to mention the time I put off the clock. Leaving @CVSHealth was the best decision I made.”

Pharmacy workers should build their opposition to both the pro-corporate trade unions and the for-profit health giants and form rank-and-file committees to fight for their demands for safe and humane conditions for themselves and their patients. Fill out the form below to be contacted by someone from the WSWS about building a rank-and-file committee in your workplace: