A boarded-up pharmacy in 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Closures and reduced pharmacy hours at drug stores in the Bay Area have left customers scrambling to find places to get their prescriptions filled. 

CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid have all announced cutbacks in hours and closures as the industry refocuses on online delivery. This has left many pharmacists and staff in Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville overwhelmed and under-scheduled, and their customers waiting in long lines at the remaining pharmacies.

A customer in the Adeline Walgreens in Berkeley who requested to remain anonymous said that one weekend he went without his daily medication. 

“If they can’t pay to staff their pharmacy, they shouldn’t be in business,” he said, adding that he sent a complaint to the CEO of Walgreens about the pharmacy’s conditions. 

John Frahm, secretary-treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, said that out of the 75 CVS stores they represent, seven or eight locations shuttered since the end of last year in Marin, Alameda, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties.

CVS, which announced in November 2021 the closure of 900 brick-and-mortar stores starting in spring 2022, declined to discuss the recent closures in an email.

According to Walgreens and CVS websites, controlled medications, such as some pain and ADHD drugs, cannot be delivered. Those medications require a customer to pick them up at a physical pharmacy.

Labor shortages dictate operating hours

On a recent Tuesday, the parking lot was packed at the Walgreens on Adeline Street in Berkeley. Twelve people lined up along the cosmetics aisle and waited to be seen by the pharmacist. 

Maria, who only chose to identify herself by her first name, said she was waiting in line to pick up heart medication for her father, who has been without it for three weeks.

Walgreens permanently closed two pharmacies in Berkeley in 2020 and 2021 and one in Oakland in July 2021, which city leaders tried unsuccessfully to keep open.  

“What we are seeing in some areas is consistent with what many other healthcare entities have been experiencing – staffing challenges due to the ongoing national labor shortage,” Kris Lathan, a spokesperson for Walgreens, wrote in an email. “We continue to take steps to help mitigate these pressures, however, there are some instances where we’ve had to adjust or reduce pharmacy operating hours as we work to balance staffing and resources in the market to best meet customer demand.”

Lathan did not provide a total of store closures, but added: “Our focus is creating the right network of retail pharmacy stores in the right locations that are best tailored to meet the needs of local communities.”

In September, the CVS in Emeryville on San Pablo Avenue permanently closed, leaving the city with one CVS pharmacy —  located inside a Target. 

Frahm said workers displaced by the pharmacy closures were successfully transferred from that store to other locations. 

“Right now, with so many open positions available in the job market, we’ve been able to avoid people being laid off and get them transferred to work at other locations,” Frahm said. 

Job safety is a concern

A sign posted on Walgreens on Gilman Avenue in Berkeley directed customers to Walgreens on Adeline Street or the only 24-hour Walgreens in Alameda. Credit: Kathleen Quinn

In October, a sign posted on the sliding door of Walgreens on Gilman Avenue in Berkeley directed customers to the Adeline Street Walgreens or the only 24-hour Walgreens in Alameda 3 miles away. Inside, a pharmacy staffer turned people away, telling them two of their druggists had recently quit and the pharmacy was temporarily closed. It closed for several days but has since reopened.  

“We cannot legally open without pharmacists,” the staffer said, declining to give their name.  

State pharmacy regulations require drugs to be dispensed by a physician, pharmacist or “other person lawfully authorized to dispense drugs ….”

There is currently only one Rite Aid in Oakland and none in Emeryville or Berkeley. 

Due to recent robberies at pharmacies, Local 5 built into their most recent contract with CVS a requirement for higher staffing levels in the evenings. 

In Oakland, 12 people ransacked a small privately owned pharmacy in 2021. According to an Emeryville Police Department report, a robbery occurred at the now-closed San Pablo Avenue CVS in 2021. Additionally, in Berkeley, a CVS was robbed at Shattuck Avenue in 2020, according to KTVU

“Some of our members are extremely concerned about safety on the job,” Frahm said. “They shouldn’t be concerned about making sure there are enough people there so they can work without having to look over their shoulder to see if someone is going to bop them on the head just to rip off the place.”

Though CVS stopped scheduling pharmacists when the staffing levels were too low to be safe after Local 5 filed a grievance, Frahm said they reduced working hours, leaving workers part-time when they could be working up to 40 hours a week. 

According to posted hours, the latest any retail pharmacy is open in Berkeley or Emeryville is 8 p.m. Oakland has two retail pharmacies open until 9 p.m. Most remaining open pharmacies in the tri-city area close at 6 p.m.

The Walgreens’ pharmacy on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and is closed on the weekends.

Earlier this month, the Walgreens on 34th Street and Telegraph Avenue in Oakland closed. 

Pharmacies will continue to close as retail pharmacies focus on delivery and online options.

“What I think they miss is that a lot of seniors and low-income folks don’t do delivery and they have a vital function for neighborhoods that is beyond maximizing profit,” Frahm said. “To be a responsible business includes catering to those who have greater needs and they clearly are not looking to cater to those folks.” 

Kathleen Quinn is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism.