“I thought, ‘There’s no way I can keep working here because this is just too much.’ And that was without COVID vaccines,” says Shaw, who now works at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy.
Often overlooked, pharmacists face much the same pressure as other health care professionals on the front lines of the pandemic. They’ve been asked to take on more work, playing a vital role in administering COVID-19 tests and vaccines. As they interact with larger numbers of customers, their risk of infection increases.
Some have left retail pharmacies for other clinical settings or quit the profession entirely. Others say they’re not sure how much longer they can sustain the status quo.
“When we had the lockdowns, some people just never came back,” says Garth Reynolds, executive director of the Illinois Pharmacists Association. “Some pharmacies have been trying to replenish those openings since then.”
It’s a big problem for chains like CVS and Walgreens, which are desperate to staff up as flu season approaches and demand surges for COVID tests. Time is of the essence, with the U.S. approving widespread COVID booster shots and the likely expansion of vaccine eligibility to younger children in the coming months.
Deerfield-based Walgreens is looking to attract workers nationwide, offering a $1,250 sign-on bonus for pharmacy technicians hired through the end of October. It’s also awarding one-time bonuses to current pharmacists, as well as to technicians who are or become certified to administer flu and COVID shots.
CVS also recently announced a hiring binge. The Woonsocket, R.I.-based chain is looking to fill 25,000 pharmacy and retail jobs nationwide, including 600 in Illinois.
“We recognize the tight retail labor market, which may result in some staffing issues,” a CVS representative says. To make sure its pharmacies have “appropriate resources in place,” CVS says it deploys teams to stores that are understaffed, assesses pharmacy hours and makes technology enhancements, among other changes.
A Walgreens representative says: “On the occasion a pharmacist is unable to meet his or her shift, our clinical and safety teams work closely with our field and store leadership to limit pharmacy disruption as quickly as possible. This may require temporary adjustments to the pharmacy operating hours, at which time customers and patients are guided to visit a nearby store location for their prescription needs.”
Neither chain explained how it’s addressing burnout among pharmacy workers.
The labor shortage is also hitting independent pharmacies. Nearly 90% reported difficulty hiring technicians, according to a May survey of 278 independent pharmacies by the National Community Pharmacists Association.
“Before the pandemic, we already had a lot of stresses on pharmacies,” Reynolds says. “And then we had this massive pandemic where we’ve asked health care providers at all levels to do more than we’ve ever asked—times 10. It does take a toll emotionally.”
Of the more than 2,000 pharmacists who responded to the American Pharmacists Association’s well-being index, 30% are at risk of “high distress,” meaning they’re more likely to experience burnout, make an error and want to leave their jobs, among other risk factors.
Oklahoma City pharmacist Bled Tanoe, who declines to name her employer, says she’s thinking about quitting and personally knows about 10 people who left pharmacy jobs in the last three months alone.
“We’re heading into flu season, and nobody wants to be there during that time,” Tanoe says. “Typically summer is the slow season for us. However, this year we didn’t really have that. . . .People didn’t have time to rest and reset. They say, ‘I can’t keep up this momentum. I’ll end up losing my mind or making a mistake.’ ”
Tanoe says she’s terrified of making an error, such as giving a patient the wrong shot or prescription, because she’s overworked and doesn’t have enough support.
There’s a lot at stake for retail chains that are heavily dependent on pharmacy sales, particularly as they reposition themselves as health care destinations with on-site physicians.
For Walgreens, where U.S. retail pharmacy sales account for three-quarters of the company’s $139 billion in revenue, any disruption to pharmacy operations “would be catastrophic,” says Morningstar analyst Dylan Finley. “If they’re not properly staffed . . . they could lose customers to the pharmacy down the street, which could fill a prescription right away—or to Amazon.”
Some retail pharmacies already are contending with long wait times or, in some cases, reduced hours due to staff shortages. The inconvenience often leads disgruntled patients to take their frustrations out on workers.
“Usually when a patient comes to us at the pharmacy, they’ve had to wait at the hospital or the lab or multiple doctors’ offices,” Reynolds says. “And sometimes we get to be the unfortunate target of emotional release. . . .A lot of times people treat pharmacists in a way they would never treat a doctor.”
In addition to balancing a heavy workload, one former Walgreens pharmacist says he was screamed at and threatened by customers for refusing to fill questionable prescriptions for drugs like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
Shaw, who provides burned-out retail pharmacists with comic relief through his RXComedy YouTube channel, says he gets several messages a week from workers near their breaking point. And while none of his former colleagues have quit, he says many—if not most—are looking for opportunities elsewhere.
Shaw foresees more strain ahead as customers seeking booster shots and vaccinations for children under 12 years old flood pharmacies already overwhelmed by their current workload. “Once you put shots on top of that, it’s just literally impossible.”