Soldotna pharmacist Justin Ruffridge sees high turnover among employees, especially junior technicians whose average salary is not much higher than what they might earn at some McDonald’s restaurants.
The job demands the busy pace of a fast food gig and the pressure of retail customer service, but with the added stress and precision of working around medications, where there is no room to the mistake.
The average salary is around $ 17.50 an hour, said Ruffridge, who also chairs the Alaska Board of Pharmacy.
“Which for the amount of work the individual has to do is minuscule,” he said. “It’s not an easy job to fill … the work is a lot of work for very little fame.”
Alaskan pharmacies are struggling with the same worker shortages that hamper restaurants and retail businesses across the country, as well as health care providers.
But on top of that, our isolated state offers fewer opportunities for pharmaceutical education and more public outrage towards healthcare workers than maybe any other right now, officials say.
Pharmacy workers, especially technicians, are usually the first people clients deal with. Now, in the state’s charged atmosphere surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, some are reporting an angry pullback on vaccines and pressure to provide unproven treatments like ivermectin, state officials say.
Pharmacists who for years have asked anyone who takes a prescription if they want to get a flu shot dare not talk about a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I recently spoke to a few pharmacists who are considering leaving the profession or leaving Alaska because of the hostility they see in their work on a daily basis,” said Dr. Coleman Cutchins, state pharmacist.
Cutchins said two of his former students are moving from Alaskan communities to other jobs around the state due to the anger and abuse they endure on the job.
“It happens 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 short break to answer a reporter call this week.
“I’ll trade you an employee for a story,” Watts joked. “It’s been a difficult few weeks. “
His store is busy all the time amid the ever-changing healthcare landscape, he said. The pharmacy has a decent level of staff for current demands, but could lose a few employees, so Watts said he doesn’t have much cushion. The recruiting pool is small and the work is demanding.
“It takes time and training,” he said. “It is not something that can be learned immediately.”
It’s easy to find stories of long waits, service changes, or delays in the state.
At the busy Target store in Wasilla last weekend, a line snaked from the drugstore almost to the front door, with a single employee looking harassed at the counter. This week, a Walgreens pharmacy in Anchorage had to postpone a flu shot because they were too stretched. A Railbelt pharmacy owner who did not want to be quoted said his stores had stopped administering vaccines because they did not have enough workers.
Pharmacist Jackie May from Bernie Pharmacy in Anchorage didn’t have much time to speak on Friday morning.
The pharmacy was pretty buoyant, May said, but as an independent business, at least Bernie’s could tailor the day’s tasks to suit the level of staff. It’s different from drug stores in big box stores where customers can find a pharmacist working with a few technicians and filling hundreds of prescriptions while answering the phones and vaccinating people.
“We are very busy, but I am so much more concerned about my colleagues,” she said.
Representatives for Safeway, Target and Walgreen did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Fred Meyer did not answer specific questions and directed a reporter to the corporate job posting site, which includes a number of pharmacy positions in Alaska.
Train future technicians
Ashley Schaber started as a pharmacy technician in Georgia at the age of 16. She is now in charge of the inpatient pharmacy at Alaska Native Medical Center.
Typically, the pharmacy sees more entry-level positions open than qualified applicants, but has recently been able to hire and train a few new technicians, Schaber said. This, along with the assistance of pharmacists in technician duties, allows the pharmacy to operate with sufficient staff for the workload.
ANMC Pharmacy is also involved in an effort to improve the hiring situation with an apprenticeship program for new technicians, in partnership with the Alaska Primary Care Association and the Southcentral Area Health Educational Center through the Ministry of Labor and Workforce Development.
The pharmacy had its first cohort involved in the program last month, Schaber said. She hopes that the additional training for technicians will help bring more to the profession.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to help the public and to help care for patients and serve in the medical field,” she said. “There are a lot of growth opportunities.
Yet, Ruffridge said, the high level of emotion surrounding COVID-19 vaccines and masking in Anchorage and elsewhere has added another obstacle to efforts to recruit workers.
[Anchorage Assembly deliberation of proposed mask mandate marked by audience outbursts]
Co-owner of Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, Ruffridge has personally testified against the mask warrants at city council meetings “because I think in Alaska they don’t work very well”, but had to stop watching the testimony of the Anchorage assembly during hearings on a mask warrant due to constant harangues from medical professionals and public health measures.
“I wish the public discourse put healthcare professionals back in a position of trust rather than a position of skepticism. And I don’t know if we get that back very easily, ”he said. “It was always something that gave people great pride in this career choice. People trust us.