Heidi Strehl worked as a pharmacy technician at a Rite Aid in the Pittsburgh suburbs for more than 16 years. She loved her customers, enjoyed her job and thought of her co-workers as family. But this fall, Strehl abruptly quit, walking out in the middle of a shift — one of many in a wave of pharmacy technicians who are doing the same.
Most of the people behind pharmacy counters who count pills and fill medication bottles are pharmacy technicians, not pharmacists — low-wage workers in positions that don’t require college degrees. Working in a pharmacy was always fast-paced, Strehl said, but in recent years the workload and stress had increased to unsustainable levels, while staffing and pay failed to keep up. During the coronavirus pandemic, the pace quickened further, especially once pharmacies began giving Covid-19 vaccine shots. Her store regularly ran behind on prescriptions, often with several hundred waiting to be filled each morning.
“It got to the point that it was just such an unsafe working environment, where you are being pulled a thousand different directions at any given time,” she said. “You’re far more likely to make a mistake and far less likely to catch it.”
The last straws for her came in October. Strehl said she got an “insulting” 25-cent raise, bringing her to $15.08 an hour. A few days later, after yet another customer yelled at her over a delayed prescription, she had a panic attack in a corner of the pharmacy, crying and struggling to breathe while work continued around her. Then she grabbed her things, hugged her co-workers and walked out for the last time.
“I always thought I would retire from that place,” Strehl said. “But all of the parts of my job that I truly enjoyed over the years had slowly just gone away.”
Strehl is one of about 420,000 pharmacy technicians in the U.S. Even though they aren’t highly paid — the median pay is $16.87 per hour — and often have no pre-employment medical training, they are vital to the health care system. They help pharmacists fill and check prescriptions and make sure patients get the right medication in the right amounts at the right time. Some even give vaccinations.
In recent months, many technicians have quit, saying they’re being asked to do too much for too little pay, increasing the possibility that they will fill prescriptions improperly.
Employers, from major drugstore chains like Rite Aid, CVS and Walgreens to mom-and-pop pharmacies and even hospitals, are struggling to replace them. It’s yet another of the labor shortages that have gripped the country this year. At many drugstores, the pharmacy staff members who remain are stretched thin. The shortage has led to dayslong waits for medication, shortened pharmacy hours and some prescription errors and vaccination mix-ups — like children receiving an adult Covid-19 vaccine shot instead of a flu shot — in a business sector in which delays and