An article in a recent edition of The Wall Street Journal about challenges caused by a shortfall of workers at CVS Health missed the forest for the trees, focusing on problems at a few of its more than 10,000 drug stores, while giving short shrift to the extraordinary contributions that CVS — like other retail pharmacy operators — and its employees have made in the battle against COVID-19.
The story, which in the print edition appeared under the headline “CVS Scrambles to Hire Thousands as Staff Shortage Tangles Business,” cited troubling accounts from customers and employees. Long wait times for service, including COVID vaccinations and testing; unanswered phone calls; closed drive-thru windows; and, in one instance, a benign dispensing error were among the issues reported. Those are problems no retailer ever wants to encounter, but they do occasionally crop up when a company has thousands of stores across the United States.
The true test is how a business responds when adverse situations arise, and CVS is taking aggressive steps to meet the COVID-fueled surge in demand that its stores continue to experience. The company is in the midst of hiring 25,000 people — predominantly pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and nurses — to care for patients and ease the burden on colleagues. The number of retail store associates is also being increased to ensure that the expectations of front-end customers are satisfied.
“Every flu season we need additional team members, but this year we’re looking for even more,” CVS Pharmacy president Neela Montgomery said at the time the hiring drive, a one-day virtual event held late last month, was announced. “With the continued presence of COVID-19 in our communities, we’re estimating a much greater need for personnel. These jobs offer a rewarding opportunity to really make an impact on public health in our country.”
The move comes on the heels of the company’s decision to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour by July 2022. Employees have already started to receive incremental wage increases and, when the policy takes full effect, CVS will have increased its hourly pay rate by 60% over a four-year period.
“Attracting and retaining top talent across our businesses is critical as we continue to redefine what it means to meet people’s health needs,” said Karen Lynch, president and chief executive officer of CVS Health. “This is the latest in a series of investments in our people, including bonuses and benefit enhancements throughout the pandemic.”
It’s clear that Lynch and her colleagues are committed to raising store staffing levels and doing whatever else is required to meet the needs of patients and customers in a business centered on face-to-face interactions.
In the meantime, as Montgomery told the Journal, the current situation “is testing our role in the community.” When considering the challenges CVS faces, it is advisable to take a step back and take into account what the company — like so many of its counterparts in community pharmacy — has accomplished during the past 18 months. Confronted with the gravest public health emergency since the influenza pandemic of 1918, CVS was quick to answer the federal government’s call for assistance from the private sector, standing up COVID testing sites in the early stages of the pandemic. To date, the company has administered some 33 million tests.
As soon as the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program cleared the way for the administration of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID vaccines in stores, the company began offering them to patients. Thus far, CVS has given approximately 35 million doses. It anticipates another spike in demand for immunizations when federal regulators approve widespread use of boosters, which is expected to come during flu season. (The industry as a whole has administered 127 million doses of COVID vaccines.)
CVS Health has cemented its position in the communities it serves in other ways, as well. As an essential retailer, the company remained open throughout the pandemic, continuing to deliver pharmacy care and timely advice when many other health care facilities were shuttered. The drug chain was a reliable source of consumables and other household essentials when the supply chain was constrained and lockdowns limited shopping options for consumers.
Those achievements deserve recognition and shouldn’t be taken for granted. The media is doing its job when it reports on developments — good and bad — at CVS Health and other major retail and health care companies, but problems at a handful of stores are only one small part of a much bigger picture.