Anti-masker abuse, subpar healthcare, and a 5 cent raise: CVS workers say enough is enough

‘They they want to offer a nickel raise and say, “we’re taking care of our workers.”’ Photograph: Courtesy of UFCW Local 770

California employees looking for a better deal in union negotiations as the company posts record profits

Thousands of workers at CVS stores across California are demanding better pay, increased safety standards, healthcare improvements and more security for workers in new union contract negotiations.

The demands followed the drug chain’s report of record profits over the past 18 months, in part due to keeping stores open throughout the pandemic and offering Covid-19 testing and vaccines in stores. CVS reported a profit of more than $7bn in 2020 and posted a $2.8bn profit in the second quarter of 2021. CVS is ranked the eighth largest retailer in the US based on 2020 sales and its parent company, CVS Health, is the fourth largest corporation in the US by revenue.

CVS has offered a wage increase of just 5 cents an hour for most workers in the contract negotiations.

“We made over a $7bn profit for this company in 2020. They made that off our backs. We were the ones who took the risks, but they only want to offer us nickels and dimes for a raise, to give us subpar healthcare, and not give us security proposals to keep us safe,” said Margaret Holguin, a CVS employee in Los Angeles and a member of the union negotiating committee.

More than 6,700 CVS workers represented by UFCW Locals 5, 135, 324, 770, 1164, 1428 and 1442 signed a petition supporting the demands, as Local 770 has been in new contract negotiations with CVS for several months. More than 12,000 employees at CVS are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers in the US, with Local 770 representing about 2,600 CVS employees in southern California.

Jeff Hall, a shift supervisor at a CVS store in Los Angeles, said that CVS workers have worked throughout the pandemic and constantly struggled with understaffing, which has made it difficult to enforce coronavirus safety protocols.

“It’ll be me and a cashier every day, and we have no way to man the door to make sure people are wearing masks,” said Hall. “We have at least 10 to 15 confrontations every single day. People without masks come to CVS because they know we can’t do anything.”

He described instances where he has been physically assaulted by irate customers who refuse to wear masks, and said that understaffing has made the store a target for anti-maskers, because some other grocery and retail stores have enough employees to enforce protocols.

Hall also criticized the proposed wage increases that CVS has offered workers who have endured the risks and poor working conditions caused by Covid-19, and said that full-time employees are facing cuts to their work schedules from 40 hours to 30 hours a week, which can result in a devastating loss of income.

“The first thing they want to do is they want to cut a quarter of everybody’s paycheck, and then they want to offer a nickel raise and say, ‘we’re taking care of our workers.’” Hall said. “Workers wouldn’t be able to pay their rent, buy groceries, take care of their children or put gas in their car. If anybody loses a quarter of their paycheck, how are they supposed to make adjustments and survive?”

Jennifer Reyes, another CVS employee in Los Angeles and a negotiating committee member, said health insurance CVS offers to employees is unaffordable, even though the company owns Aetna, one of the largest health insurance companies in the US.

“They own the company, so they should be able to implement a more affordable plan for their employees,” said Reyes, who noted her store shut down in late 2020 due to an outbreak of coronavirus cases among staff and that there have been recent cases among workers in her store. “We’re stretched really thin because of people being out.”

The understaffing at CVS stores has incited concerns over safety and security, Reyes said. She said she deals with irate customers who refuse to wear masks on a regular basis, and her store location is near a Rite Aid store where an employee was recently murdered during a robbery.

“The workers who work at CVS don’t earn a lot of money. They’ve gone through the pandemic, working the entire time as essential workers, putting themselves at risk, and there’s been increased violence in the stores,” said Kathy Finn, the secretary treasurer of UFCW Local 770. “They want better wages, they want more hours, more staff, because despite all the extra work they’re doing, because they’ve been doing Covid testing and vaccinations in addition to all their regular work, they don’t ever have enough staff.”

A spokesperson for CVS said in an email: “The health and safety of our colleagues is a top priority. We regularly review our workplace policies and practices to comply with all applicable federal and state workplace safety rules and to provide a safe working environment for our employees. We are currently negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with the UFCW Local 770 in California and workplace safety is a topic being discussed. CVS Pharmacy has a long-standing, productive relationship with the UFCW Local 770 and we look forward to finalizing a new agreement.”

… we have a small favour to ask. Tens of millions have placed their trust in the Guardian’s high-impact journalism since we started publishing 200 years ago, turning to us in moments of crisis, uncertainty, solidarity and hope. More than 1.5 million readers, in 180 countries, have recently taken the step to support us financially – keeping us open to all, and fiercely independent.

The Guardian US was born 10 years ago to provide a fresh, international perspective on America. We are guided by a sense of fairness in reporting on how the country’s enduring, and worsening, wealth, racial and health inequalities impact the most vulnerable. From the fight for voting rights to the decimation of reproductive freedom, we focus on the country’s existential battle for basic democratic rights, even as dark forces attempt to erode them. We are also committed to upholding our reputation for urgent, powerful reporting on the climate emergency. The Guardian has made the decision to reject advertising from fossil fuel companies, divest from the oil and gas industries, and set a course to achieve net zero emissions by 2030.

With no shareholders or billionaire owner, we can set our own agenda and provide trustworthy journalism that’s free from commercial and political influence, offering a counterweight to the spread of misinformation. When it’s never mattered more, we can investigate and challenge without fear or favour.

Unlike many others, Guardian journalism is available for everyone to read, regardless of what they can afford to pay. We do this because we believe in information equality. Greater numbers of people can keep track of global events, understand their impact on people and communities, and become inspired to take meaningful action.