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Walgreens will stop judging its pharmacy staffers by how fast they work

As retail pharmacies have struggled with staffing shortages, pharmacy workers across the U.S. have been sounding the alarm about dangerous working conditions, pushed by quotas and other metrics.
A Walgreens pharmacy in 2014.
A Walgreens pharmacy in 2014.Jeffrey Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty Images file

Walgreens will no longer evaluate its pharmacy staffers based on speed and other metrics amid complaints from pharmacists across the industry that pressure to meet targets like the number of filled prescriptions is leading to dangerous mistakes and staff burnout.

Walgreens, the country’s second-largest pharmacy chain, announced Wednesday that it is eliminating “task-based metrics” from performance evaluations to allow its pharmacy staffers to “place even greater focus on patient care.” They will now be evaluated “solely on the behaviors that best support patient care and enhance the patient experience,” Walgreens said in a news release.

A spokesperson declined to provide specific examples of the metrics Walgreens is eliminating.

For years, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians around the country have been sounding the alarm about working conditions and understaffing, which they say increase the potential for mistakes in filling prescriptions. The problems worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, according to many workers, as pharmacies became key locations for Covid-19 testing and vaccinations.

NBC News stories published last year documented the concerns of dozens of pharmacists and technicians across the industry. They described already high workloads that rose dramatically, while many stores lost workers and struggled to fill positions, compounding stress and burnout and increasing their concerns about making serious medication errors.

One of the most commonly cited issues at chain pharmacies, including Walgreens, was pressure to meet metrics like weekly targets for number of prescriptions filled, calls to patients and vaccinations given. 

The American Pharmacist Association called Walgreens’ announcement “a positive step in the right direction” and encouraged other pharmacies to do the same.

“This addresses one of the major pharmacy workplace concerns expressed by pharmacists,” said Ilsa Bernstein, the trade group’s interim CEO. “These metrics are a key factor in contributing to pharmacist burnout and stress.”

Walgreens and other retail pharmacies have struggled with staffing shortages since the start of the pandemic. Shortages led to long waits for medication, shorter hours and even closed stores late last year. 

In response, Walgreens, which employs more than 24,000 pharmacists and even more technicians, said it began investing more in its pharmacy staff by increasing base pay and bonuses and hiring thousands of employees. It invested more than $190 million in pharmacy staffing this year, and it plans to invest even more next year, according to a news release. Its move to no longer evaluate pharmacy workers on “task-based metrics” builds on that investment, the company said. 

“We’re proud to take a strong position in the industry with this measure, one we are taking due to feedback from our pharmacy team members and also as part of our commitment to pharmacy quality and patient care,” said Holly May, the executive vice president and global chief human resources officer of Walgreens’ parent company, Walgreens Boots Alliance.

Pharmacies are regulated by state boards, and rules about working conditions differ state to state. The pandemic — and the issues it presented — prompted a number of states to take action to improve working conditions. 

Last year, California passed a bill co-sponsored by its state pharmacists association that “prohibited the practice of imposing quotas intended to increase corporate profit margins on the backs of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians,” according to the association. Other states started surveying workers about their workloads and concerns. The Ohio state pharmacy board found last year that roughly half of the pharmacists in the state — the country’s seventh largest — said they do not have adequate time to complete their job safely.

The Ohio board published a draft rule this month that, when finalized, would prevent all pharmacies in the state from using quotas as employee performance metrics. Walgreens and the trade group for chain drugstores have opposed the board’s efforts to eliminate metrics.

“We are glad that Walgreens chose to address this important issue negatively impacting pharmacist workload,” said Cameron McNamee, the board’s director of policy and communications. “It appears this may address issues raised by Ohio pharmacists that we are attempting to address in our proposed rule. However, the proof will be in the implementation of the policy.”

CORRECTION (Oct. 28, 12:12 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the co-sponsor of the California bill on quotas. It was the California Pharmacists Association, not the California State Board of Pharmacy.