Pharmacy customer
A customer walks along a pharmacy aisle. Photo by Mark Buckawicki via Wikimedia Commons

An epidemic of armed robberies has struck drugstores and supermarket pharmacies across San Diego over the past year. While these crimes of opportunity are no doubt a consequence of widespread opioid addiction, the perpetrators are enabled by retail stores that skimp on staffing, leaving workers and customers vulnerable to attacks.

Drugstore robberies are a symptom of a larger trend in the retail space where pharmacists are forced to work alone for hours on end, juggling telephones, cash registers, and security duties in addition to dispensing medicine.

These conditions undermine the job the public is counting on pharmacists to do: keep your medicine safe. That’s why California pharmacists represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers are fighting for commonsense public health legislation, Senate Bill 1442 introduced by Sen. Scott Wiener. This bill keeps patients safe by requiring stores to adequately staff retail pharmacies.

As Californians grapple with a severe shortage of primary care physicians, policy makers have increasingly looked to pharmacists to help fill the gap. Accordingly, pharmacists are now empowered to dispense vaccinations, tobacco cessation tools, contraceptives, and opioid overdose rescue products. We are also tasked with enforcing rules that prevent misuse of over-the-counter cold medicines and monitoring other items commonly stolen from store aisles.

Pharmacists are highly trained and willing to take on the additional public health roles — but we can’t help people be healthy if we are pulled away from our most important job of dispensing medicine safely. Safe prescriptions require pharmacists to screen for potential allergic reactions, drug interactions, verify correct dosing, and educate patients about when and how to take medicine and what possible side effects to watch out for. Oftentimes we must communicate with doctors’ offices to confirm details or suggest alternatives to keep patients safe.

One person can’t safely do it all. Since I started working in a retail pharmacy, the industry has shifted dramatically.  It used to be that pharmacists would work in pairs for an eight-hour shift.  Now we commonly work alone for a 12-hour shift, without anyone to cover breaks or meals.

Recently I was working alone at night when a couple approached me asking about digestive aids. I stepped out behind the counter to assist her with a medicine, the male reached over the pharmacy gate door in an attempt to open it, and I realized I had been set up to leave the pharmacy to while he attempted to jump our counter and steal. I rushed over to confront the man and they both left quickly.

I’m sure a theft would have occurred had I not been in a position to see what he was doing or had the confidence to intervene.  While this situation ended safely, it goes to show that pharmacists and our stores face risks from solitary staffing.

Even worse, when stores put pharmacists in these situations that stress our time and focus, they’re putting our patients at risk. SB 1442 is a clear solution to dangerous understaffing in pharmacies.  It simply requires that pharmacists have the support necessary to uphold the trust patients put in us to keep them safe and healthy.

Suzanne Bradbury is a registered pharmacist who works at Vons and is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers professional board.