FORT THOMAS, Ky. — Pharmacists have been called the most readily accessible health care providers, and have been on the front lines administering COVID-19 vaccines over the last few years.

So many people depend on pharmacists, but much like other industries, pharmacies are facing staffing challenges.

What You Need To Know

  • Pharmacies across Kentucky are facing staffing challenges

  • One Fort Thomas pharmacist says some in the profession are underpaid and have poor work life balance

  • He says the issues stem from pharmacy benefit managers

  • Walgreens is offering a $75,000 signing bonus to new pharmacists

The phones at Fort Thomas Drug Center are constantly ringing.

People needing their medications is something that never stops. That makes for some busy work days for those who work at this independently owned pharmacy, which is short staffed, as are several other pharmacies Spectrum News contacted.

“Ever since COVID came about, it’s much harder to find people today. And so the big question is, where did they go? I don’t think anybody really has an answer,” said the pharmacist and owner of Fort Thomas Drug Center Craig Seither.

Seither has owned the business for just about 15 years.

He, one other pharmacist, and a group of technicians keep the business running, offering the local, friendly service his customers have to come to expect. That also buys them a little more patience, he said, for any delays created by staffing challenges.

Seither said his shortage is more on the technician end, though he said he could stand to hire another pharmacist part time.

The big chains like Walgreens and CVS are facing those challenges, too.

“With COVID, all these things that have come into play, it’s all, from the corporate perspective, they just put more and more on these pharmacists that have basically reached a breaking point,” Seither said. “They just basically don’t have the support staff. They don’t really have their corporate backing.”

Seither said he believes it comes down to unfair salaries and uneven work life balance, issues he said can be traced upwards to pharmacy benefit managers. The big three are GoodRX, CVS Caremark and OptumRx.

“When you get paid less than the cost of your medication that you buy from your wholesaler, that’s a problem,” Seither said. “If you tell me that the shortage out there is because they’re not pumping out enough pharmacists, that’s a complete farce. It basically stems from pharmacy benefit managers putting pressure on the corporate entities. They’re squeezing everything they can, but you can only squeeze so far.”

Pharmacists are in short supply, and competition is getting so fierce, Walgreens is offering signing bonuses of up to $75,000. That’s a number not confirmed by the company, but reported by people familiar with the matter. 

It’s also on the high end. 

Signing bonuses vary at the chain. Sources say most new pharmacists can expect less than $50,000. It still illustrates a notable step the company is taking to make sure it can attract workers in a tight labor market. 

Pharmacists who receive signing bonuses can expect a requirement to commit to the job for a year or more.