(p. A1) If any group of workers might have expected their pay to rise last year, it would arguably have been pharmacists. With many drugstores dispensing coronavirus tests and vaccines while filling hundreds of prescriptions each day, working as a pharmacist became a sleep-deprived, lunch-skipping frenzy — one in which ornery customers did not hesitate to vent their frustrations over the inevitable backups and bottlenecks.
“I was stressed all day long about giving immunizations,” said Amanda Poole, who left her job as a pharmacist at a CVS in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in June. “I’d look at patients and say to them, ‘I’d love to fill your prescriptions today, but there’s no way I can.’”
Yet pay for pharmacists, who typically spend six or seven years after high school working toward their professional degree, fell nearly 5 percent last year after adjusting for inflation. Dr. Poole said her pay, about $65 per hour, did not increase in more than four years — first at an independent pharmacy, then at CVS.
For many Americans, one of the pandemic’s few bright spots has been wage growth, with pay rising rapidly for those near the bottom and those at the top. But a broad swath of workers in between has lagged behind.
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(p. A16) Pharmacies also faced external challenges. To hold down the cost of prescription drugs, insurance companies and employers rely on so-called pharmacy benefit managers to negotiate discounts with drugmakers and pharmacies. Consolidation among benefit managers gave them more leverage over pharmacies to drive prices lower. (CVS merged with a large benefits manager in 2007.)
Big drugstore chains often responded by trying to rein in labor costs, according to William Doucette, a professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Iowa. Several pharmacists who worked at Walgreens and CVS said the formulas their companies used to allocate labor resulted in low levels of staffing that were extremely difficult to increase.
According to documents provided by a former CVS pharmacist, managers are motivated by bonuses to stay within these aggressive targets.
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In most cases, an industry without enough workers to meet customer demand would simply hire more, or at least raise wages to attract them.
Yet, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, neither of those things happened last year. The number of pharmacists employed in the United States dropped about 1 percent from 2020 to 2021. On balance, employers did not raise wages — in fact, median pay fell slightly, even without adjusting for inflation.
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Several pharmacists said they were especially concerned that understaffing had put patients at risk, given the potentially deadly consequences of mix-ups. “It was so mentally taxing,” said Dr. Poole, the Tuscaloosa pharmacist. “Every day, I was like: I hope I don’t kill anyone.”
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Asked about safety and staffing, CVS and Walgreens said they had made changes, like automating routine tasks, to help pharmacists focus on the most important aspects of their jobs.
Many pharmacists contacted for this article quit rather than face this persistent dread, often taking lower-paying positions.
Still, none had regrets about the decision to leave. “I was 4,000 pounds lighter the moment I sent my resignation email in,” said Dr. Wommack, who left the company in May 2021 and now works at a small community hospital.
As for the medication she had taken for depression and anxiety while at Walgreens, she said, “Shortly after I stopped working there, I stopped taking those pills.”
(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “How Pharmacy Work Stopped Being So Great.”)