Soldotna pharmacist Justin Ruffridge sees high turnover among employees, particularly entry-level technicians whose average pay isn’t much more than they could make at some McDonald’s restaurants.
The job demands the busy pace of a fast-food gig and the customer service pressure of retail, but with the added stress and precision of working around medicines, where there’s no room for error.
Average pay is about $17.50 an hour, said Ruffridge, who also chairs the Alaska Board of Pharmacy.
“Which for the amount of work that individual needs to perform is minuscule,” he said. “It’s not an easy position to fill ... the job is a lot of work for very little glory.”
Alaska’s pharmacies are grappling with the same worker shortages hamstringing restaurants and retail businesses across the country, as well as health care providers.
But on top of that, our isolated state offers fewer educational opportunities in pharmaceutical fields and more public outrage toward health care workers than maybe any other right now, officials say.
Pharmacy workers, especially technicians, are usually the first people customers deal with. Now, in the state’s charged atmosphere surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, some report angry pushback on vaccines and pressure to provide unproven treatments like ivermectin, state officials say.
Pharmacists who for years have asked anyone picking up a prescription if they want a flu shot don’t dare bring up a COVID-19 vaccination.
“I’ve talked to few pharmacists recently who are considering getting out of the profession or leaving Alaska due to the hostility they’re seeing at their job on a daily basis,” said Dr. Coleman Cutchins, the state pharmacist.
Cutchins said two of his former students are transferring from Alaskan communities to other jobs in the state due to the anger and bad treatment they’re experiencing at work.
“It is happening more in Alaska than anywhere else,” he said.
‘Time and training’
In Juneau at Ron’s Apothecary Shoppe, owner and pharmacist Scott Watts took a quick break to field a reporter’s call this week.
“I’ll trade you an employee for a story,” Watts joked. “It’s been a rough couple weeks.”
His store is busy all the time amid the constantly changing health care landscape, he said. The pharmacy has a decent staffing level for current demands but may be losing a few employees, so Watts said he doesn’t have much of a cushion. The recruiting pool is small and the job is challenging.
“It takes time and training,” he said. “It’s not something that is learned immediately.”
It’s easy to find stories of long waits, changes in service or delays around the state.
At Wasilla’s busy Target store last weekend, a line snaked from the pharmacy nearly to the front entrance, with just one harried-looking employee at the counter. A Walgreens pharmacy in Anchorage this week had to reschedule a flu shot because they were stretched too thin. A Railbelt pharmacy owner who didn’t want to be quoted said their stores stopped administering vaccines because they didn’t have enough workers.
Pharmacist Jackie May at Bernie’s Pharmacy in Anchorage didn’t have much time to talk Friday morning.
The pharmacy was pretty backed up, May said, but as an independently owned business, at least Bernie’s could tailor the day’s tasks to match staffing level. That’s different from pharmacies in big box stores where customers might find one pharmacist working with few technicians and filling hundreds of prescriptions while answering phones and vaccinating people.
“We’re super busy, but I’m so much more concerned about my colleagues,” she said.
Representatives of Safeway, Target and Walgreen did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A Fred Meyer spokesperson did not answer specific questions and pointed a reporter to the corporate jobs listing site, which includes a number of pharmacy positions around Alaska.
Training future techs
Ashley Schaber started out as a pharmacy technician in Georgia at the age of 16. Now she’s the inpatient pharmacy manager at Alaska Native Medical Center.
Generally, the pharmacy is seeing more open entry-level positions than qualified candidates, but has been able to recently hire and train a few new technicians, Schaber said. That, along with pharmacists helping with technician duties, is allowing the pharmacy to function with enough staff for the workload.
The ANMC pharmacy is also involved in an effort to improve the hiring situation with an apprenticeship program for new technicians, in partnership the Alaska Primary Care Association and Southcentral Area Health Educational Center through the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
The pharmacy had its first cohort involved with the program in the past month, Schaber said. She hopes the additional training for technicians helps bring more into the profession.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to help the public and to help take care of patients and to serve in the medical field,” she said. “There’s a lot of growth opportunities.”
Still, Ruffridge said, the charged level of emotion surrounding COVID-19 vaccines and masking in Anchorage and elsewhere has added yet another hurdle to efforts to recruit workers.
A co-owner of Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, Ruffridge has personally testified against mask mandates at city council meetings “because I think in Alaska they don’t work very well,” but had to stop watching Anchorage Assembly testimony during hearings on a mask mandate due to the constant haranguing of medical professionals and public health measures.
“I do wish the public discourse had put health care professionals back in a position of trust rather than in a position of skepticism. And I don’t know if we get that back very easily,” he said. “That was always something that gave people great pride in this career choice. People trust us.”