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Union Support Rises, While Corporations Lower Pharmacist Pay

Summary: Decreased pay for hard-working pharmacists, and growing support for unions. Maybe there’s a connection.

U.S. Approval of Labor Unions at Highest Point Since 1965
Gallop
August 30, 2022
BY Justin McCarthy

Seventy-one percent of Americans now approve of labor unions. Although statistically similar to last year’s 68%, it is up from 64% before the pandemic and is the highest Gallup has recorded on this measure since 1965.

[The nadir was 48% in 2010.]

How Pharmacy Work Stopped Being So Great
New York Times
Aug. 20, 202
By Noam Scheiber

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. …

[Pharmacy] consolidation generated large fees for workers at the top of the income ladder — financiers and corporate lawyers — but slowed the growth of retail outlets where pharmacists could find employment. After striking a deal in 2017 to acquire roughly 2,000 Rite Aid stores, Walgreens shut down more than 500 locations. It closed a few hundred more over the next three years.

Automation has further reduced demand for workers — many pharmacists now spend far less time processing insurance claims because software does it for them.

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.

Comment by: Jim Kahn

On this Labor Day, we see two conflicting trends. For labor advocates, the good news is that support for labor unions is at a 50-year high. The bad news is that corporations are lowering pay for pharmacists, despite the work burdens of COVID, a robust economy, and generally rising wages.

Corporate machinations that led to pharmacist pay cuts include buyouts and mergers, retail outlet reductions, and the invention of a new corporate intermediary, the pharmacy benefit manager. Corporate executives and shareholders gain; over-burdened front line providers lose.

Maybe these trends aren’t conflicting! Maybe growing support for unions reflects a rising awareness of vulnerability to the cost-cutting profit-maximizing actions of private equity and corporations more generally.

Single payer would incorporate collective bargaining for payment rates to professionals.

Single payer would remove the financial burdens of health care from workers (and everyone). Wages would rise with the end to employer premium payments.

Let’s keep up the struggle for better health care, better wages, and delinking of the two!

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