Covid's Unseen Victims
Bloomberg Businessweek|January 31, 2022
Extra duties and depleted ranks have pharmacy workers buckling under the pressure
By Angelica Peebles, Photography by Heather Ainsworth

Jennifer Morrow says she first considered quitting her job as a pharmacist at a CVS drugstore near Binghamton, N.Y., last October after she was assigned to fill in at a store she’d rarely worked in. When she arrived, she discovered she’d be the only pharmacist on the job all day—with no technician or cashier to help, either. The pandemic was raging. The phones were ringing, and prescriptions quickly backed up as she turned her attention to giving Covid-19 vaccinations and flu shots. By 4 p.m., she was hours behind schedule. Overwhelmed, exhausted, and worried she’d make a mistake filling a prescription, she closed the pharmacy early, forcing customers to find other stores.

Not long after that day, Morrow, who’d worked for CVS for eight years, quit her job when working conditions continued to deteriorate. “I would say a little prayer before I went into work, ‘Lord, please let me help somebody today,’ ” she says. “But that white coat got heavier and heavier every day, and my prayer changed to, ‘Dear Lord, just don’t let me kill somebody today.’ ”

Big pharmacy chains across the country are straining under the weight of the enduring pandemic, and no one is suffering more than their frontline workers. Pharmacy operators are struggling to staff stores with many employees out sick with the omicron variant and others fleeing for new jobs. The two giants, CVS Health Corp. and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. faced huge challenges before the pandemic. Insurers were squeezing their profits even as Amazon and other online services chipped away at their prescription businesses. Then an unexpected windfall of vaccine and testing revenue—$3 billion alone for CVS in 2021—helped ease that pressure. But labor shortages remain a challenge. Even before omicron, staff were exhausted and stretched thin. Now the ranks in some areas of the country are decimated, forcing stores to curtail pharmacy hours or close for days at a time.

Bloomberg spoke with a dozen current and former Walgreens and CVS pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, most of whom requested anonymity because they feared retaliation. More responded to Bloomberg’s reporting request via email and text messages, detailing crushing workloads in sparsely staffed stores.

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