Pharmacist shortages and heavy workloads challenge drugstores heading into their busy season

Oct 7, 2023, 1:20 AM

A dose of patience may come in handy at the pharmacy counter this fall.

Drug and staffing shortages haven’t gone away. Stores are starting their busiest time of year as customers look for help with colds and the flu. And this fall, pharmacists are dealing with a new vaccine and the start of insurance coverage for COVID-19 shots.

Some drugstores have addressed their challenges by adding employees at busy hours. But experts say many pharmacies, particularly the big chains, still don’t have enough workers behind the counter.

Chris Adkins said he left his job as a pharmacist with a major drugstore chain a couple years ago because of the stress. Aside from filling and checking prescriptions, Adkins routinely answered the phone, ran the register and stocked pharmacy shelves.

“I just didn’t have time for the patients,” he said. “I am OK working hard and working long hours, but I just felt like I was not doing a good job as a pharmacist.”

In recent years, drugstores have struggled to fill open pharmacist and pharmacy technician positions, even as many have raised pay and dangled signing bonuses.

Larger drugstore chains often operate stores with only one pharmacist on duty per shift, said Richard Dang, an assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of Southern California. That kind of thin staffing can make it hard to recruit employees.

“I think that many pharmacists in the profession are hesitant to work for a company where they don’t feel supported,” said Dang, a former president of the California Pharmacists Association.

Customers have noticed.

John Staed, of Pelham, Alabama, said a CVS pharmacist gave him the wrong prescription about a decade ago: the pills were a different color than usual. He worries the chances for another mistake could increase as pharmacists take on more work.

“These pharmacists always look stressed,” he said.

A CVS spokeswoman said the company is focused on addressing concerns raised by its pharmacists and has taken several actions, including “providing additional pharmacy resources” in markets that need support. She declined to say how many pharmacists or technicians the company has hired.

Former Walgreens CEO Rosalind Brewer said in late June that the company had added more than 1,000 pharmacists in the second quarter, but was running into a shortage of job candidates. Walgreens is adding processing centers around the country to ease some of the prescription workload for its stores.

Brewer, who left in late August, also said the company was limiting hours at 1,100 pharmacies, or about 12% of its U.S. locations. That was down from 1,600 earlier this year, but a company executive has said it doesn’t expect to return all pharmacies to normal operating hours by year’s end.

Labor strife and staffing shortages in health care are not isolated to drugstores, as the recent Kaiser Permanente strike shows.

But drugstores have some additional challenges in the fall. Many customers come to them for vaccines for COVID-19, flu and pneumonia. Plus, federal officials have approved a new shot for people ages 60 and older for a virus called RSV.

All told, CVS touts in a pharmacy counter brochure that the company can offer more than 15 vaccines to customers.

Ongoing drug shortages also have kept pharmacy workers on the phone more.

Jonathan Marquess said one of his drugstores fielded 100 questions one day last fall about the antibiotic amoxicillin and the attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder treatment Adderall, two drugs in short supply.

Marquess runs several independent pharmacies in Georgia and serves on the National Community Pharmacists Association board. He has done a few things to help his stores adapt to the extra workload, he said, including training all employees to answer basic questions about vaccines.

Marquess also adds extra staff when he knows they will have an influx of customers, like when a nearby company sends its employees over for vaccines.

“We learned from our experiences,” he said. “Training your entire staff is very, very important.”

Pharmacists say customers aren’t powerless and can help things run smoothly.

People should bring all their insurance cards to vaccine appointments, especially since insurance coverage is new for the COVID-19 shots, Marquess said.

Dang said customers should avoid showing up right after pharmacies reopen from a lunch break or just before they close, times when pharmacists and technicians are especially busy.

Making appointments for vaccines gives pharmacy workers a better sense for their workload. Calling several days in advance for a prescription refill also helps, said Jen Cocohoba, a pharmacy professor at University of California San Francisco.

“That tiny piece of control can help, because there’s so many things you cannot predict when you’re inside the community pharmacy,” Cocohoba said.


AP Business Writer Josh Funk contributed to this report.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

United States News

Gov. Greg Abbott receives a briefing for Hurricane Beryl from local elected officials Sunday, July ...

Associated Press

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott demands answers as customers remain without power after Beryl

DALLAS (AP) — With around 350,000 homes and businesses still without power in the Houston area almost a week after Hurricane Beryl hit Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday said he’s demanding an investigation into the response of the utility that serves the area as well as answers about its preparations for upcoming storms. “Power […]

49 minutes ago

Associated Press

Acclaimed video artist Bill Viola dies at 73, created landmark `Tristan und Isolde’ production

LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Bill Viola, a video artist who combined with director Peter Sellars on a groundbreaking production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” originally seen in Los Angeles, Paris and New York, has died at age 73. Viola died Friday at his home in Long Beach of Alzheimer’s disease, his website announced. What […]

2 hours ago

People reacting to near assassination attempt of Donald Trump at rally...

Associated Press

Governor says man killed at Trump rally was former fire chief who ‘died a hero’

A former fire chief attending the rally with family was killed, as was the gunman. Two other people were also critically wounded.

5 hours ago

Donald Trump being helped off rally stage...

Associated Press

Law enforcement: Bomb-making materials found in vehicle and home of Trump rally shooting suspect

Law enforcement officials told The Associated Press that bomb-making materials were found inside the vehicle of the man suspected in the Trump rally shooting. There were also bomb-making materials found at his home.

7 hours ago

President Joe Biden arrives on Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Saturday, July 13, 202...

Associated Press

Biden appeals for ‘unity’ after attempted Trump assassination, orders security review

President Joe Biden on Sunday appealed for the country to “unite as one nation” after the attempted assassination of Donald Trump.

7 hours ago

FILE - President Ronald Reagan waves and then looks up before being shoved into the President's lim...

Associated Press

Reagan survived an assassination attempt and his response changed the trajectory of his presidency

WASHINGTON (AP) — The would-be assassin got off six shots in 1.7 seconds, nearly taking the life of a president and changing the trajectory of a presidency. It happened on a dreary March afternoon in 1981. President Ronald Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton hotel after giving a speech to a union group when John […]

8 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines can get you smoothly from Phoenix to Frankfurt on new A330-900neo airplane

Adventure Awaits! And there's no better way to experience the vacation of your dreams than traveling with Condor Airlines.



Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.


DISC Desert Institute for Spine Care

Sciatica pain is treatable but surgery may be required

Sciatica pain is one of the most common ailments a person can face, and if not taken seriously, it could become one of the most harmful.

Pharmacist shortages and heavy workloads challenge drugstores heading into their busy season