If any group of workers might have expected their pay to rise last year, it would arguably have been pharmacists. With many drugstores dispensing coronavirus tests and vaccines while filling hundreds of prescriptions each day, working as a pharmacist became a sleep-deprived, lunch-skipping frenzy — one in which ornery customers did not hesitate to vent their frustrations over the inevitable backups and bottlenecks.
“I was stressed all day long about giving immunizations,” said Amanda Poole, who left her job as a pharmacist at a CVS in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in June. “I’d look at patients and say to them, ‘I’d love to fill your prescriptions today, but there’s no way I can.’”
Yet pay for pharmacists, who typically spend six or seven years after high school working toward their professional degree, fell nearly 5 percent last year after adjusting for inflation. Dr. Poole said her pay, about $65 per hour, did not increase in more than four years — first at an independent pharmacy, then at CVS.
data collected by a team of economists at the University of California, Berkeley.
The gap is part of a long-term trend made worse by a slowdown in pay gains for middle- and upper-middle-income workers in the 2000s. “If you’re going to a hedge fund or investment bank or a tech company, you’ve done enormously well,” said Lawrence Katz, a labor economist at Harvard. Typical college graduates, he said, “have not done that great.”
The stagnation appears to have moved up the income ladder in the last few years, even touching those in the top 10 percent.
In some cases, the explanation may be a temporary factor, like inflation. But pharmacists illustrate how slow wage growth can point to a longer-term shift that renders once sought-after jobs less rewarding financially and emotionally.
wages in the profession surged as the country faced a pharmacist shortage driven by an aging population and a rise in chronic conditions.
typically take two or three years of college-level prerequisites before earning a four-year professional degree.)
But by the 2010s, the market for pharmacists was cooling thanks to some of the same factors that have weighed on other middle-class professions. Large chains such as Walgreens and CVS were buying up competitors and adjacent businesses like health insurers.
Consolidation among benefit managers gave them more leverage over pharmacies to drive prices lower. (CVS merged with a large benefits manager in 2007.)
Big drugstore chains often responded by trying to rein in labor costs, according to William Doucette, a professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Iowa. Several pharmacists who worked at Walgreens and CVS said the formulas their companies used to allocate labor resulted in low levels of staffing that were extremely difficult to increase.
According to documents provided by a former CVS pharmacist, managers are motivated by bonuses to stay within these aggressive targets. CVS said it made staffing decisions to ensure “the safe and accurate filling of prescriptions.”
More Business, Fewer Hands
The day that Dr. Poole began seriously reconsidering her CVS job in Tuscaloosa came in May 2021 when, nearly eight months pregnant, she fainted at work.
The loss of consciousness was nothing serious in itself — she and the baby were unharmed, and an adjustment to her blood-pressure medication solved the problem. Much more alarming to her was what the episode said about working conditions: Despite the additional responsibilities of the pandemic, like coronavirus vaccines and catering to Covid-19 patients, there was no co-worker around to notice that she had hit the deck.
contract signed in March by a union of Chicago-area Walgreens pharmacists reflected a similar approach. It provided maximum base pay of $64.50 per hour, the same as the previous contract, but lowered the starting wage from $58 per hour to $49.55 per hour by September. (Like many retail pharmacists, the union members also receive bonuses.)
CVS and Walgreens said they had made hiring pharmacists a priority during the pandemic — CVS said it employed nearly 6 percent more pharmacists today than it did in early 2020; Walgreens declined to provide a figure. CVS said its compensation was “very competitive” for pharmacists, and Walgreens cited “ongoing phased wage increases”; both chains have offered signing bonuses to recruit pharmacists. The Chicago union said Walgreens had recently offered to raise pay for about one-quarter of its lowest-paid members.
To explain the wage stagnation of upper-middle-class workers during the pandemic, some economists have suggested that affluent workers are willing to accept lower wage growth for the ability to work from home. Dr. Katz, of Harvard, said the wages of many affluent workers might simply be slower to adjust to inflation than the wages of lower-paid workers.
But Marshall Steinbaum, an economist at the University of Utah, said the fact that upper-middle-class workers were not able to claim a larger share of last year’s exceptionally high corporate profits “speaks to the disempowerment of workers at all levels of status.”
change in state regulations would allow pharmacy technicians to administer shots. “They expected the techs to transition into that role,” Dr. Knolhoff said.
Overall, the industry added more than 20,000 technicians — an increase of about 5 percent — from 2020 to 2021. In that time, prescription volume increased roughly the same percentage, according to data from Barclays.
The effective replacement of higher-paid workers with lower-paid workers has also occurred in other sectors, such as higher education. But at drugstores, where pharmacists must sign off on every prescription, this shift has left little margin for error.
In August 2020, Dr. Wommack, the Walgreens pharmacist in Missouri, got Covid. A colleague covered her first two days out but couldn’t cover the third, at which point the store simply closed because there was no backup plan.
Several pharmacists said they were especially concerned that understaffing had put patients at risk, given the potentially deadly consequences of mix-ups. “It was so mentally taxing,” said Dr. Poole, the Tuscaloosa pharmacist. “Every day, I was like: I hope I don’t kill anyone.”
Asked about safety and staffing, CVS and Walgreens said they had made changes, like automating routine tasks, to help pharmacists focus on the most important aspects of their jobs.
Many pharmacists contacted for this article quit rather than face this persistent dread, often taking lower-paying positions.
Still, none had regrets about the decision to leave. “I was 4,000 pounds lighter the moment I sent my resignation email in,” said Dr. Wommack, who left the company in May 2021 and now works at a small community hospital.
As for the medication she had taken for depression and anxiety while at Walgreens, she said, “Shortly after I stopped working there, I stopped taking those pills.”
For the past nine months, I have been pregnant. But I have not — for the most part — been pregnant at work.
In the beginning, when I felt nauseous, I threw up in my own bathroom. Saltine crackers became a constant companion but remained out of view of my Zoom camera. A couple of months later, I switched from jeans to leggings without any comment from my co-workers.
And as my baby grew from the size of a lemon to a grapefruit to a cantaloupe, the box through which my colleagues see me on video calls cropped out my basketball-sized gut.
Outside the virtual office, an airport security screener scolded me for trying to pick up a suitcase, cashiers became extra nice and strangers informed me of how big or small or wide or high my belly was.
Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And research suggests that pregnant women tend to be seen as less competent, more needing of accommodation, and less committed to work as compared with women who don’t have children, said Eden King, a professor of psychology at Rice University who studies how pregnancy affects women in the workplace.
Similar stereotypes affect mothers — 63 percent of whom are working while their youngest child is under three, according to the Labor Department — but pregnancy is a more visible identity, said Ms. King. “It can be a very physical characteristic in a way that motherhood isn’t,” she said. “So some of those experiences and expectations may be exacerbated.”
In interviews with 10 pregnant or recently pregnant remote workers for this article, several women said that being visibly pregnant in real life but not on a work Zoom screen helped them feel more confident and less apprehensive about what parenthood might mean for their career. Christine Glandorf, who works in education technology and is due with her first child this month, said that like many professionals on the brink of parenthood, she worried that people’s expectations of her in the workplace could change. Remote work solves part of that equation.
“It’s nice that it’s literally not in people’s face in any way, shape or form unless I choose for it to be a part of the conversation,” she said.
a study published in the journal Personnel Psychology in 2020, Ms. King and her colleagues asked more than 100 pregnant women in a variety of industries to track how much their supervisors, without having been asked for help, did things like assign them less work so they wouldn’t be overwhelmed or protect them from unpleasant news.
Women who received more unwanted help reported feeling less capable at work, and they were more likely to want to quit nine months postpartum.
“The more you experienced those seemingly positive but actually benevolently sexist behaviors, the less you believed in yourself,” Ms. King said.
Journal of Applied Psychology in 2019, examined this apparent shift in treatment.
believe women and men should be treated equally at work and at home, mothers in opposite-sex relationships still handle a majority of the housework and child care. The same pattern holds for parental leave. While almost half of men support the idea of paid paternity leave, fewer than five percent take more than two weeks.
In 2004, California began a paid family leave program that provides a portion of a new parent’s salary for up to eight weeks. Though the program offers the same benefit to both new fathers and new mothers, a 2016 study found that it increased the leave women took by almost five weeks and the leave that men took by two to three days.
That was the disparity when new fathers actually had an option to take paid paternity leave. Most don’t. Paid leave is still uncommon for both men and women. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, 23 percent of all private industry workers had access to parental leave, up from 11 percent 10 years earlier. Although the Department of Labor stopped differentiating between maternity and paternity leave in its data more than 25 years ago, other surveys suggest that paid leave is far more uncommon for fathers.
These inequalities are one reason the gender pay gap, even between spouses, widens after women have children.
The virtual office may be relatively new, but women have long thought about how to shape their colleagues’ perception of their pregnancies. In a 2015 study conducted by Ms. Little, researchers interviewed 35 women about their experience being pregnant at work.
companies summon people back to the office, fewer people will have that choice. But there is part of the remote work pregnancy experience that can be replicated offline, Ms. King said.
“Some women do need help, and some women do want accommodations,” she said. But “you have to ask women what they want and what they need and not assume that we know.”
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As a freelance photographer, I was contacted by The New York Times in February to create a series of portraits of 15 mothers in Los Angeles who had been forced out of their jobs because of the pandemic.
I had become a mother during the pandemic, so this story struck a particular chord with me. I had lost some work as the coronavirus shut down the country, and it scared me to begin motherhood while record numbers of women were leaving the work force.
As soon as I had my heart set on taking the assignment, my editor, Crista Chapman, and I realized this would be difficult to execute. I was working in Florida for a few months and would need at least a week in California, and my doctor advised against being away from my breastfeeding infant for multiple days. Also, Los Angeles County was just beginning to recover from a devastating wave of Covid-19, so the initial plan for me to photograph everyone at their homes or in an open studio space was scrapped.
I thought I was going to have to pass on the assignment all together, which felt particularly ironic. But I didn’t want to give up, so I decided to get creative and pitched remote portrait sessions with the women. I knew these might be a little trickier because all of our subjects were busy moms without a lot of time to deal with technology. So, to ensure I could pull this off, I did a practice session with my sister-in-law and her kids. I could use those images as a step-by-step guide for all the sessions, and Crista signed off on the idea.
I emailed and called each woman with the general plan for the photo shoot and then jumped right into the work.
I set up a video call, usually with my daughter on my lap, so a different kind of intimacy was quickly developed. We could relate to each other as mothers, which broke any awkwardness that might be felt from FaceTiming with a stranger. My daughter would giggle, their child would shove a stuffed animal on camera, and we would share stories about what we had been through over the past year.
While we chatted, I would have each woman take me on a tour of her space and show me anything that reminded her of life before Covid. This typically took about 30 minutes while I figured out lighting and composition. Once we decided on the space, I would have her set her camera up on whatever she could find — a chair, bookshelf, laptop stand or kitchen table. Then I would have her sit with her kids.
The women would set up the camera while I gave directions. Sometimes I had a child, husband or translator hold the phone and help me out. I was always clicking the capture button.
A big part of my process is watching body language and documenting, with minimal direction, how people occupy space. To create organic, intimate images that tell a story, I usually have to share physical space with the people I photograph. So, remote shoots introduced a totally new dynamic.
I typically work to create images with a sense of familiarity and closeness, and by creating remote photos this way, I was able to go (virtually) into these women’s homes and capture their daily life with their children in a new way, creating really intimate portraits that were much more immediate than they would have been had we done the photos in person as planned.
I wanted to capture the feeling many of us have experienced communicating with family and friends through our phones and computers this past year, and this approach provided a different level of engagement.
Since the shoot, I’ve continued working while raising our daughter. I think of those women often and wonder how they all feel as life in Los Angeles is opening back up. I don’t take for granted the work that I’ve gotten, and I hope we all collectively remember the women who are still at home, still taking care of the kids with their lives on hold.
The vaccines produced similar responses in all three groups of women, eliciting both antibody and T-cell responses against the coronavirus, the scientists found. Of particular note, experts said, was the fact that the shots produced high levels of neutralizing antibodies, which can prevent the virus from entering cells, in both pregnant and nonpregnant women.
“Clearly, the vaccines were working in these people,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University who was not involved in the research. “These levels are expected to be quite protective.”
The researchers also found neutralizing antibodies in the breast milk of vaccinated mothers and in umbilical cord blood collected from infants at delivery. “Vaccination of pregnant people and lactating people actually leads to transfer of some immunity to their newborns and lactating infants,” said Dr. Ai-ris Y. Collier, a physician-scientist at Beth Israel who is the first author of the paper.
The results are “really encouraging,” Dr. Iwasaki said. “There is this added benefit of conferring protective antibodies to the newborn and the fetus, which is all the more reason to get vaccinated.”
The scientists also measured the women’s immune responses to two variants of concern: B.1.1.7, which was first identified in Britain, and B.1.351, which was first identified in South Africa. All three groups of women produced antibody and T-cell responses to both variants after vaccination, although their antibody responses were weaker against the variants, especially B.1.351, than against the original strain of the virus, according to the study.
“These women developed immune responses to the variants, although the asterisk is that the antibody responses were reduced several-fold,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, a study author and virologist at Beth Israel.(Dr. Barouch and his colleagues developed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was not included in this study.)
“Overall, it’s good news,” he added. “And it increases the data that suggests that there is a substantial benefit for pregnant women to be vaccinated.”