VONS DRUGGISTS CROSS PICKET LINES

ARCADIA, Calif. -- Nearly all striking pharmacists who work for Vons here have returned to the pharmacy counters, citing their obligation to counsel patients and fill their patients' prescription drug needs, according to industry sources.The ongoing grocery strikes in Southern California include supermarket chains Vons and its Pavilions stores, a division of Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif.; Ralphs Grocery

ARCADIA, Calif. -- Nearly all striking pharmacists who work for Vons here have returned to the pharmacy counters, citing their obligation to counsel patients and fill their patients' prescription drug needs, according to industry sources.

The ongoing grocery strikes in Southern California include supermarket chains Vons and its Pavilions stores, a division of Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif.; Ralphs Grocery Co., Compton, Calif., a banner under Kroger, Cincinnati; and Albertsons, Boise, Idaho. The Southern California strike began almost a month ago over employee health care benefits, among other issues. The United Food and Commercial Workers union struck Vons; Ralphs and Albertsons locked employees out in solidarity.

As of Nov. 4, about 106 Vons pharmacists had crossed the picket lines, allowing the retailer to reopen 110 of the retailer's 143 pharmacies, according to Sandra Calderon, spokeswoman for Vons. "[Pharmacists] expressed that the main reason they've returned to work is their commitment to patients and having their patients' interests and well-being in mind," she told SN.

Most of Ralphs' 200 union pharmacists are on duty at the company's 69 pharmacies, according to published reports. On Oct. 31, seven locals of UFCW pulled their picket lines off all Ralphs stores and redeployed picketers to the Safeway and Albertsons-operated stores. The picket lines ceased at Ralphs so consumers would have some relief during the triple threat of the grocery strike, the wildfires and the transit strike, the union said in published reports. Officials at Ralphs and Albertsons did not return calls for comment.

One pharmacy manager at a Pavilions store in West Hollywood, Calif., said, on condition of anonymity, that he decided return to work after one week on the picket lines for ethical and legal reasons.

"I don't know a single pharmacist who feels good about the situation," he said. " I have a dedication to the union, the company and my patients, and it's not all coming together right now."

However, patients are a pharmacist's first priority, said the pharmacy manager, and he made an oath as a professional pharmacist to put patients' health first. Dozens of patients have not been able to receive their medications since the strike began, he said, endangering people's lives.

"For 30 years, I've always put my patients first, ahead of the company or even myself," he said. "The fact that pharmacists are the ones coming back in droves makes a statement."

Legally, the pharmacy manager said he feared pharmacists could be sued if patients were not able to receive their medications. Additionally, several pharmacists temporarily filled in for striking pharmacists at his store and as a manager, he would be liable if any of the replacement pharmacists violated a law or made a medical error.

"If one person died or had to go to the hospital, I would feel horrible," said the pharmacy manager.

While the United Food and Commercial Workers union understands that the pharmacy business "is a healing profession and they feel like they have an obligation [to patients], it's a moot point because Vons stores are deserted," said Ellen Anreder, a spokeswoman for the UFCW. The three supermarket chains' combined sales are down 75%, she said.

Since the strike, the pharmacy at the West Hollywood Pavilions has received only one-third to one-half of its normal business, said the pharmacy manager.

"It's an insignificant point if it's even true, since many customers have already transferred their prescriptions to the local Rite Aid," Anreder said. She could not confirm that union pharmacists have gone back to work, since they do not have to check in with the UFCW before they decide to break through picket lines.

Employee loss at the three supermarket chains has been a large gain for chain drug stores in the strike area like Walgreens, based in Deerfield, Ill., and Rite Aid, Camp Hill, Pa., according to officials at the companies.

"We have seen an increase in business from the strikes," said Jody Cook, spokeswoman for Rite Aid. "We would want people to know that we are available to help in their time of need." Rite Aid occupies 580 stores in California.

"Many stores have gained quite a bit of business, depending on where they are located," said Carol Hively, spokeswoman for Walgreens, which operates 356 stores in California. "A store that is not near a [striking] grocery store does not feel as much of the impact."