Orange County pharmacists and pharmacy workers at Ralph’s, Vons, Pavilions and Albertsons grocery store chains could soon go on strike over what they say are anti-union practices by the companies while they negotiate a new labor contract.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324, which represents roughly 23,000 grocery and other retail workers in Orange County and parts of Los Angeles County, is one of seven Southern California branches that voted to authorize union leadership to call for unfair labor practice strikes if necessary, according to a news release from the union.

“Southern California’s essential pharmacists have made their voices heard with this vote. They have made the difficult decision to stand together on the picket line should it become necessary in protest of the unlawful and unfair treatment they’ve received from Ralphs, Vons, Albertsons, and Pavilions,” reads the release.

The pharmacists have been vaccinating scores of Orange County residents against COVID-19, including booster shots.

The union is pushing for wage increases, better staffing and guaranteed minimum hours for part-time pharmacists, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324 website.

Jenna Thompson, a spokesperson for the union, said in a Friday interview that most of the pharmacists are working 12 hour shifts with little to no help.

“They have to fill prescriptions, they have to answer the phone, they have to give vaccination, and other shots and things to customers, they have to answer questions and these pharmacists are just overworked and overwhelmed,” she said.

“They don’t have time to take a break and have time to take a lunch.”

Andrea Zinder, president of UFCW Local 324, said pharmacists want at least one other person working with them at all times.

“They can’t even go to the bathroom,” she said in a Friday interview.

The Albertsons Companies, which includes Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions, did not reply to a request for comment Friday. 

John Votava, director of Corporate Affairs for Kroger, Ralphs’ parent company, said in an email Friday the company is looking to reach an agreement that meets pharmacists’ needs, keeps their stores competitive and keeps medicine prices low.

He also wrote that claims of unfair labor practices are false, have nothing to do with negotiations and are being used by the union as a fear tactic to call a strike and cause disruption for the company.

“The UFCW claims have not been investigated by the National Labor Relations Board. Ralphs follows the law and has not been notified of any wrongdoing,” the email read.

The strike vote comes amidst contract negotiations between Ralphs and pharmacy workers.

In an update on contract negotiations on July 19, Ralphs said the union was spreading misinformation about what an unfair labor practice strike, saying it’s “an unfortunate attempt to undermine the negotiation process.” 

Zinder said pharmacists are looking to get a $9.50 pay increase over three years while companies are offering a $2.85 increase over the same period.

Negotiations continued on Friday, but Zinder said she doesn’t expect an agreement anytime soon.

Thompson said pharmacists are willing to strike if necessary.

Both Votava and Thompson noted that just because there has been a vote to authorize a strike doesn’t necessarily mean there will be one.

No dates have been set yet for a strike.

According to the United Food and Commercial Workers news release, the union has filed unfair labor practices charges against the companies with the National Labor Relations board for allegedly intimidating and retaliating against pharmacy workers for involvement with the union.

The news release also states the grocery chains are conducting an “illegal interrogation of pharmacists about their union activity, threatening adverse actions against them for engaging in union activity.”

They also claim that the companies have offered “token bonuses” to pharmacists rather than negotiating wage increases and failed to provide staffing documents necessary for negotiations.

It’s not the first time United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324 members have voted to authorize a strike against the companies this year.

In March, grocery store workers voted to authorize a strike as employees demanded better pay and safer working conditions.

[Read: Orange County Grocery Workers Vote to Authorize Strike]

Grocery Store workers hold signs outside a Ralphs supermarket in Long Beach calling for a fair contract at a protest in March. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The strike didn’t happen after workers decided to ratify a proposed contract with the grocery store chains in April.

[Read: Strike Averted: OC Grocery Workers Vote on New Contract After Fighting for Better Pay]

During the pandemic, grocery workers have been yelled at, spit on and insulted by customers for enforcing COVID safety protocols like mask mandates at stores, according to numerous interviews with employees over the past two years.

This includes pharmacists.

“We had people call us names. We had things thrown at us and a few times we felt like our life was at risk, because they were very upset. And they would come in with no mask and actually spit on us. They had COVID and they would spit on us,” Christine Martinez, a Pharmacy Technician at Ralphs in Placentia, told the Voice of OC back in March.

Besides administering COVID vaccines, Zinder said pharmacists are also able to give Paxlovid, an antiviral COVID medication, without a doctor’s prescription.

“They’re dealing with people who are already infected coming up to the pharmacy and saying ‘I want Paxlovid I tested positive’ right in their face,” she said.

Zinder said issues go beyond COVID.

“More and more healthcare is transitioning to your neighborhood pharmacy,” she said. “They have people’s lives in their hands, working 8 to 12 hour shifts all alone.”

“It’s a very, very stressful position the employers have put them in and now they don’t even want to compensate them appropriately.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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