Chronic understaffing, high stress and low pay


Australia’s pharmacists are unhappy, a new report reveals, with less than a third saying they would recommend it for a career… and nearly another third plan to leave

The union for employee pharmacists has released its latest report into pharmacists’ pay: the Community and Hospital Pharmacists Employment and Remuneration Report 2019-20.

Professional Pharmacists Australia president Geoff March said the report paints a “disturbing” picture of the pressures and unsatisfactory pay and conditions received by Australia’s pharmacists.

“Throughout the entire COVID-19 pandemic, Australia’s pharmacists selflessly continued their vital work, ensuring that the community was provided with the important medication and health services they needed,” he said.

“Along with other essential healthcare workers, we rightly applauded them as heroes.

“But this report reveals that Australia’s pharmacists are receiving wages and conditions that are not commensurate with the skills and expertise they provide, and the value they contribute to the health sector and our community.

“Despite years of tertiary education and the acquisition of incredibly high-level knowledge and skills, pharmacists receive low wages, work unsociable hours, are chronically understaffed and experience intense workplace pressure and stress. At the same time, they have few opportunities for career progression and promotion.

“As a result, less than one third of pharmacists actually recommend pharmacy as a career and up to 30% of pharmacists at some community pharmacies are intending to leave their employment.”

As previously reported by the AJP, this year’s report shows that pharmacy graduates have the lowest rate of pay of all university graduates, earning $48,000 in their intern year; and the discount chains, such as Chemist Warehouse, My Chemist and Discount Drug Stores, offer the lowest median pay rates of all pharmacy employers.

“Lower median hourly rates of pay for pharmacists employed by discount pharmacies was largely driven by respondents working for Chemist Warehouse which has some of the least attractive pay conditions of any pharmacy chain in Australia,” the report says.

“By comparison National Pharmacies, UFS and Amcal/Amcal Max had some of the best rates of pay across the board making them appealing employers for community pharmacists.”

However pharmacists working in hospitals and covered by enterprise bargaining agreements could expect a median salary of up to $7,500 more each year – or up to $8 an hour higher – than those working in community pharmacies.

The median rate of pay for a community pharmacist was $38 an hour, the report says, compared to $46 for a hospital pharmacist.

Pay progression has been almost flat over the last decade, the report notes, saying that community pharmacy in particular is “notorious” for flat pay progression.

However, “After years of mostly stagnant growth in wages community pharmacists have finally experienced some real pay increases,” the report admits.

“All classifications other than Pharmacy Intern reported higher mean hourly rates of pay compared to 2018, with the lowest growth being 5% for those employed at the Pharmacist-in-Charge classification. It is concerning that the Pharmacy Intern rate may be slowly declining when it is already so near the award minimum.”

Community pharmacist single-year wage growth had been 8.1% for pharmacists, 5% for pharmacists-in-charge, and 7.8% for pharmacist managers.

“While things are much more positive for community pharmacists than they have been in previous years this is still a lot of room for improvement,” the report says.

“Both the Pharmacist and Pharmacist-in-Charge classification mean hourly rates of pay have increased only barely ahead of CPI since 2015, limiting the impact this growth has on the disposable income of pharmacists nation-wide.”

Women in community pharmacy earned a median hourly average of $38, compared to $40 for men; however this reversed slightly in the hospital setting, with men taking home $46.96 an hour compared to $47.50 for women.

The gender gap appears to be largely as a result of the under-representation of women at the Pharmacy Manager classification, and their over-representation at the Pharmacist level, the report says.

As for penalty loadings, these were most likely to be available to hospital pharmacists.

The report also looked at conditions, including written job descriptions.

“Like employment agreements, written job descriptions are more common in hospital pharmacy than community pharmacy, but still common in community pharmacy,” the report said.

“Again, Discount Drug Store was one of the biggest offenders, with less than half of respondents working there reporting having written job descriptions. Guardian was even worse.

“Very positively, every pharmacist working for National Pharmacies that responded to the survey reported having a written job description. National Pharmacies also performed well when it came to the prevalence of employment agreements.”

Hospital pharmacists were much more likely to have access to paid parental leave provisions, at 69.3% – compared to 27.7% in the community sector.

“Hospital pharmacists were also more likely to have access to leave loading and on-call or standby payments. The only benefit community pharmacists were much more likely to have access to was pay for working through lunch breaks.

“Community pharmacists were more likely to report regularly working through their lunch break than hospital pharmacists, but in both industries the prevalence of this was very employer-dependent.

“Within community pharmacy working through lunch breaks was particularly common at Guardian, Terry White, Blooms, and when working for independent pharmacies. In hospital pharmacy it was particularly common for pharmacists working for Slade.”

The report had a significant focus on morale: which was not good.

“Pharmacists have endured years of downward pressure on wages, hazy career progression, and a lack of respect for their important role in our communities,” the report said.

“Combined these have had a negative impact on morale, leading to a generation of pharmacists that aren’t even confident of recommending their profession to others. Only 28% of community pharmacists indicated they would recommend pharmacy as a career.

“Sentiment was even more negative amongst pharmacists employed at discount pharmacy chains with a slim 15.1% recommending pharmacy as a career.

“Attitudes were more positive amongst pharmacists employed in the hospital industry, but even then less than half recommended pharmacy as a career.”

The respondents said the biggest cause of unhappiness was pressure and stress of work; followed by inadequate staffing, poor pay, and lack of recognition.

“Poor pay, the pressures and stress of work and inadequate staffing were all substantially more of an issue at the discount chains.

“Such low morale in the industry creates the risk of pharmacists abandoning their profession. Respondents were asked to indicate whether they intended to remain employed as a pharmacist over the next five years.

“A shocking 30.3% of pharmacists employed at discount pharmacy chains said they intended to leave the profession, compared with 13.7% of pharmacists employed with other banner groups. Morale appeared better in hospital pharmacy, with only 8.9% reporting an intention to leave their profession over the next five years.”

Dr March said that the only way to guarantee recruitment and retention of pharmacists was to address systemic issues with the pay, conditions and career projection.

“It’s clear that the pharmacy industry has taken Australia’s pharmacists for granted and as a result, the future sustainability of the workforce and its capacity to contribute to community health, is at serious risk,” he said.

“We must address the glaring discrepancies in pharmacists pay. We must improve wages and working conditions. Pharmacists must be provided with an opportunity to progress their careers.

“We must also make pharmacy an attractive industry for the next generation of candidates so we can continue to provide the community with the important services they rely on.”

Addressing reform

Meanwhile PPA has also called on cross-bench Senators to oppose the Morrison Government’s Omnibus industrial relations Bill.

The union says the Bill will hurt Australia’s pharmacists and undermine the industry’s capacity to provide community healthcare.

Dr March said that after the role the nation’s pharmacists had played in protecting community health during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was “astonishing” that they now faced cuts to their wages and workplace rights.

“Now, instead of the praise and support they rightly deserve, pharmacists face the biggest attack on their working conditions in two decades.

“The Morrison Government’s IR laws hurt Australia’s pharmacists.

“They will take away rights of those employed on a casual or part time basis, make harmful emergency JobKeeper provisions permanent and reduce workers’ ability to bargain collectively for higher pay and conditions.

“After the enormous sacrifices pharmacists have made to protect the community’s health throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, they deserve better.”

Dr March also expressed concerns on the impact the passing of the Morrison Government’s IR laws would have on the sustainability of the pharmacy sector.

“The starting salary for graduate pharmacists is already the lowest of every profession in Australia,” he said.

“If the Morrison Government’s workplace laws are passed and wages and conditions are cut further, the capacity of our industry to attract the talented graduates we need to protect the community’s health will be further jeopardised.

“It’s absolutely critical that cross bench senators reject the Morrison Government’s workplace laws, which will hurt Australia’s pharmacists and undermine our capacity to provide the quality care our community requires into the future.”

A number of unions have criticised the Bill, as has pharmacist and MP Emma McBride, ALP member for Dobell, NSW).

Ms McBride recently said that the Bill would impact many health care workers, increasing their risk of job insecurity and increasing the chance that they would have to work across several workplaces.

However Angie Bell, LNP member for Moncrieff, Queensland, said the Bill would introduce “greater flexibility,” particularly in sectors hard hit by COVID-19.

“This bill brings employers and part-time employees together in the economically vulnerable retail and hospitality sectors… to work together to agree on additional hours of work for part-time employees who want them,” she said recently.

“This will help to increase working hours and wages and encourage employers to offer more permanent, secure roles with benefits, including paid sick leave, over traditionally more flexible forms of employment like casual roles.”

Despite union opposition, a “gutted” version of the Bill passed on Thursday, which did not include provisions such as those to address wage theft.

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