(Bloomberg) -- CVS Health Corp. is facing a resumption of walkouts this week by pharmacists in Kansas City, Missouri, who are protesting working conditions in its drugstores and other locations.

After the walkouts began Thursday, the chain dispatched Chief Pharmacy Officer Prem Shah to meet Tuesday with the pharmacists. Shah agreed to issue a public apology to the employees for the work environment and a public apology to customers for the lack of service due to those conditions, according to one of the organizers of the walkout, who asked not to be named because the discussions were private.

After the meeting, pharmacists postponed further walkouts and scheduled talks for next month to address long-term solutions to issues pharmacists raised, including hiring more support staff and alleviating workload, the organizer said.

However, a spokesperson for CVS said late Tuesday that Shah had agreed to send a personal memo to pharmacy teams regarding the company’s delayed response to their concerns, rather than a public apology. That led to the decision to resume the walkouts, the organizer said.

Pharmacy Walkouts

Last week’s actions closed about 10 pharmacies in the Kansas City area, some of them in Target Corp. retail stores. All those locations reopened Saturday and have remained so this week, a CVS spokesperson said. The pharmacists aren’t part of a union, said Bled Tanoe, who represents the walkout’s organizers, but unionization has been discussed by the employees.

CVS said early Wednesday that the workers’ activity is uncommon and the company takes it seriously.

“We can’t speculate on what activity may occur today and we’re doing everything we can to help ensure our pharmacies are open to take care of patients,” the company said in an emailed statement. 

Tensions between US companies and employees are rising. President Joe Biden joined an auto workers’ protest Tuesday amid walkouts General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NV plants. Hollywood writers went on strike for months, and workers at companies like Starbucks Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Apple Inc. have made efforts to form unions. 

Pharmacists often bear the brunt of patients’ anger and frustration over complex insurance plans and persistent drug shortages. The situation has reached a tipping point in Missouri, Tanoe said, where there’s a backlog of prescriptions and insufficient staff to answer phones, meet company goals and manage the recent rollout of new Covid-19 vaccinations.

CVS’s Measures

Drugstore chains are struggling to compete as sales of both pharmaceuticals and the retail items in the front of their stories increasingly move online. While both CVS and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. have broadened into more dimensions of health care, the transition has been slow. CVS shares have lost 23% this year through Tuesday, while those of Walgreens, where Rosalind Brewer recently stepped down as chief executive officer, have shed 43%.  

CVS has made efforts to support pharmacy teams in Kansas City and Missouri, including bringing in more staffing support and providing additional training, according to a spokesperson.

“We are focused on addressing their concerns, but we don’t think preventing patients from getting the care they need is ever the answer,” the chain said Tuesday in a separate statement. 

Pharmacists have raised similar concerns before. Tanoe, a former Walgreens pharmacist in Oklahoma City, created the hashtag #pizzaisnotworking in 2021 in response to challenging working conditions that she said couldn’t be fixed with a staff pizza party. The hashtag has since been used by pharmacy workers nationwide to raise awareness of staff burnout and poor labor conditions. 

Walgreens and other drugstores have said they’re using technology and automation to free up time for pharmacists. While those measures can help ease the pressure, workers say the chains need to add staff. 

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