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‘Pharmageddon’: Boots sister company says US walkout had ‘little impact’

Boots owner Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) has said that a three-day pharmacist walkout over patient safety at Boots’ US sister company Walgreens this week had minimal impact and did not affect the UK multiple.

Pharmacist staff at US pharmacy chains Walgreens – owned by Boots’ parent company WBA – and CVS have staged a three-day walkout this week from October 30 to November 1.

Organisers of the walkout, dubbed “Pharmageddon” by the media, told NBC News this week (October 31) that “around 900 people in as many as 10 states” could participate in the action. 

The workers were not protesting for more money but for reduced workloads including an end to “policies that push them to work faster”, claiming that workload pressures are a risk to patient safety, according to NBC News.

Read more: Could England’s community pharmacists go on strike?

Walgreens is reported to have said yesterday (November 2) that the walkout had "little impact", while CVS is reported to have seen no store closures as a result of the action.

Meanwhile, WBA has stressed to C+D that the walkout has not had "any impact on Boots".

The pharmacists participating in the strike action are not members of a union, NBC News and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) said.

But a fundraiser backing a “national push to unionise” run by one of the walkout organisers Shane Jerominski had received over $63,000 by today (November 3).

 

“Tipping point”

 

Dr Lannie Duong, a pharmacist and organiser of the walkout with Dr Jerominski, told C+D today that most participants took a sick day “due to fear of retaliation if they walked out”, making the total number of those involved “difficult to discern”.

Dr Duong said that a survey run by grassroots patient and pharmacy advocacy group PizzaIsNotWorking indicated that over 200 pharmacy staff cancelled 390 shifts across 43 US states over the three days of action – half of whom reported working for Walgreens. 

But she stressed that the survey “may not have captured all participants” as organisers’ “sole mode of communication has been on social media platforms” due to the lack of a union.

Read more: We stand with you: Pharmacists back junior doctors despite strike pressures

Dr Duong said that the walkout was motivated by a concern for patient safety, claiming that pharmacists and pharmacy staff “are not able to work safely” due to “chronic understaffing”.

She said that “a focus on sales-driven metrics” instead of focusing on patients had produced a “tipping point” in “retail” pharmacy.

“We don’t want to cut access to care with walkouts,” Dr Duong told C+D, but she added that further walkouts would “always be a possibility” and that she supported “the option to unionise” – with some national unions having “taken interest”.

 

Minimal impact

 

According to a November 2 Reuters report, CVS reported “no store closures or disruptions to shifts”, while Walgreens said that the walkout “had little impact”.

A WBA spokesperson told C+D on November 1 that the company had seen “only a handful of staff” participate in the walkout across the country and “only a few pharmacies close for a short time…due to workforce disruptions”. 

Read more: Striking ‘not an option’ for pharmacy businesses, PSNC warns contractors

The spokesperson said that “nearly all” of Walgreens’ 25,000 pharmacists continued “to serve their customers” this week, adding that the company “[thanks] them for it”.

Walgreens is owned by WBA, which also controls Boots, the largest pharmacy multiple in the UK.

The WBA spokesperson stressed that the walkout did not “involve or have any impact on Boots”, but they declined to comment on whether they had concerns about similar action in the UK.

Read more: Why does striking seem to be the hardest word for community pharmacy?

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for CVS told C+D yesterday (November 2) that it saw no “unusual activity regarding unplanned pharmacy closures or pharmacist walkouts” this week.

The CVS spokesperson said that it was “engaging” with its pharmacists to “address any concerns” and had made “targeted investments to address their key concerns” in response to “recent feedback”.

 

Union stands “ready to assist”

 

Nevertheless, unions and pharmacy associations in the US expressed support for those participating in the walkout.

Dave Young, director of organising for UFCW – the “largest retail pharmacy union” in the US – told C+D yesterday (November 2) that the union “stood ready to assist”.

Mr Young said that UFCW had been in contact with “many of the CVS and Walgreens workers who have been taking actions to stand up for their rights”.

Read more: UPDATED: PDA ‘actively considers’ balloting NHS members over strike action

The union said last month (October 12) that it supported the pharmacy workers who decided to participate in the walkout as well as their right to “make their voices heard and join a union”.

And in a statement published on October 30, chief executive of the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) Michael D. Hogue said that the organisation stood with “every pharmacist who participated in the walkout”.

Mr Hogue suggested that “inadequate staffing” in pharmacies leading to “frustrations and burnout” was common throughout the country and that it was “unacceptable in any setting”.

 

“Common concern”

 

Meanwhile, Paul Day, director of the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA) – which represents pharmacists at Boots UK – told C+D on November 1 that it was “not connected to the walkout” and had not discussed the dispute with Boots UK management.

Nevertheless, he said that the issues around patient safety and workload raised by the US pharmacists are “a common concern” for pharmacists across the world.

Mr Day called for the standards set out in its safer pharmacies charter – which calls for “safe staffing, adequate rest and respect for professional judgment” – to be “met in pharmacy everywhere, including the US”.

Read more: UPDATED: PDA and Boots announce 5% pharmacist pay rise under new deal

He encouraged pharmacists to join a trade union or “if no suitable union exists to form one”, adding that the PDA had helped Polish pharmacists to unionise in 2017.

A spokesperson for the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP) told C+D yesterday (November 2) that “workforce issues are a long-term problem”.

But they said that FIP “has been very concerned over growing reports of pharmacists being pressured to deliver more services without adequate support” since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more: Save Pharmacy: ‘The era of nice needs to become the era of what is reasonable’

“FIP will continue to call for investment and advocate positive practice environments for our profession,” they added. 

The UK pharmacy negotiator Community Pharmacy England (CPE) warned contractors in February that strike action is “not an option for pharmacy businesses” after seeking “legal advice” amid pressure to take “more militant action”.

However, it said that “strike action can be effective for employees”.

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