Frontline workers are owed huge ‘debt of gratitude’

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PHILADELPHIA — Jessica Kazmaier was promoted to chief human resources officer at Rite Aid in 2019, a year before the start of the pandemic.

Jessica Kazmaier

“I was not expecting when I got the honor that we were going to jump right into such complicated times, but here we are,” she says.

The complications initially entailed keeping stores open while ensuring associates’ health and safety, as well as that of the public.

Since then, Kazmaier says Rite Aid’s response to COVID-19 has been “an evolution,” all the while recognizing that the company and society owe frontline retail workers “an enormous debt of gratitude.”

After a focus on safety measures like Plexiglas shields and increased cleaning and sanitization, flexible administrative leave was instituted, especially for immunocompromised workers or those with family members at risk. “Some of that changed over time, just because we’ve learned more about how COVID is transmitted,” she notes. “And some of that was pre-vaccine, but certainly we feel like we’ve put in place all of the right safety protocols for our associates. That’s always been at the top of our priorities.”

No company can make a workplace disease free, and the challenge is heightened for employees with a customer-facing role. The upshot for them is stress and burnout, but Kazmaier says “we’ve tried to be as flexible as possible with people so that they can make decisions that work for them.”

1200 Intrepid Avenue

Key moves to that end were having a dedicated hour for walk-in vaccines, and closing pharmacies an hour early on weekdays. “We’ve taken some very purposeful steps to try to reduce as much stress for the pharmacy operations team as we can,” she says. “But we’re also there to meet our customers’ needs and exceed their expectations and be a community resource during a pandemic. So the demand is pretty high for our teams, and we’ve had to manage both sides — be a fantastic community resource for our customers and make sure we’re not burning out our store associates.”

To keep its pay competitive with other chains vying for workers, Rite Aid pushed up its scheduled wage increases for store associates. It invested some $20 million last year above and beyond its set-aside for normal merit increases. At the same time the company is taking a close look at what workers want not just in a job, but in a career. It has sought to identify career paths, says Kazmaier, particularly for entry-level workers. “You might come here and start out as a service associate or a pharmacy tech. But with the right opportunity and training — which we’re more than happy to provide — you could run a store or be a field leader.”

“We’re a big company with a lot of different avenues,” she adds. “There are plenty of corporate roles, including with our subsidiaries. So we’re trying to be really intentional about identifying different ways that people can come to us and not need to leave just to grow.”

Rite Aid is also focused on leadership and good management practices. While competitive pay and a career path are significant, Kazmaier says what may be most important is working for a good and trusted manager or supervisor. “So we’re trying to make sure that we’re able to retain the folks that we’re hiring by giving them a great experience with a terrific leader.”

Recruiting, including digital outreach, has been another area of emphasis. Recruiters have sought to ease the hiring burden of pharmacy and store managers with initiatives like associate referral programs. The effort led to a turnaround for Rite Aid’s workforce numbers starting this winter, with hires consistently outpacing departures in most positions. “We’ve just now gotten to a point where our staffing levels have returned to something more manageable, but we need to keep at it,” she says. “We need to get all the hires trained and delivering a great experience. They’re not necessarily all out there in the stores yet, but we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Helping the recruiting has been leaning into the new purpose developed by Rite Aid over the past year. “This has been a really invigorating activity for the company,” Kazmaier remarks. “We had a very bottom-up approach in putting words to our company purpose. Being a health care retailer, we’ve always been a purpose-driven company, but we didn’t have a specific purpose statement.” The company worked with store and field personnel as well as management to develop “our North Star,” which is helping people achieve “whole health for life.”

“We’ve really highlighted that as we’re talking to potential applicants who might be interested in coming to work for us, because it says a lot about our culture. It says a lot about our passion in every area of the company. It’s helping us to find more of the right people to come work in the organization.”

A sister project was reevaluating core company values so that prospective hires — who have lots of options­ ­— would have a better understanding of what it was going to be like to join Rite Aid. The new values are:

  • Hustle with humility. This is about listening, staying agile and adapting quickly, but also achieving results with ­determination.
  • Earn trust and keep it. This encompasses gaining trust from both customers and teammates. It comes down to striving to do the right thing and thinking of problems as opportunities. It acknowledges that mistakes are made but can be fixed.
  • Get there together. This means having a collaborative environment. It emphasizes a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and seeking a diverse perspective to enhance customer service.

Combined, all these recruiting efforts have helped Rite Aid “to be able to get maybe even more than our normal share of people who were out there looking for work,” Kazmaier says.

Renamed charity tackles urban poverty and hunger

PHILADELPHIA — Together, we can build a healthier future.

That’s the focus of Rite Aid Healthy Futures, the charity formerly known as The Rite Aid Foundation, as it launches its next era of philanthropic work. Underscoring and living up to its reimagined identity, Rite Aid Healthy Futures this year announced its new $10 million Strengthening Cities initiative supporting healthier and more equitable neighborhoods.

Starting with a focus on food equity, Strengthening Cities will initially fund 20 nonprofit organizations with emphasis on Black- and Brown-led charities across Baltimore; Buffalo, N.Y.; Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit; Fresno, Calif.; and Philadelphia. The grants will support innovative and sustainable programs that widen food access, advance food sovereignty, address food apartheid and ultimately improve health outcomes for children and their families. Programs include community gardens, urban farms, school partnerships and hunger-relief ­efforts.


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