In the past year, 21 Bartell Drugs within Washington have closed due to the chain’s parent company, Rite Aid, filing for bankruptcy protection. Local customers of former Bartell’s stores are feeling the ramification of this decision as they struggle to find a convenient pharmacy with an increasing number of stores closing their doors throughout King County.
Additionally, employees at existing Bartell’s are dealing with an influx of frustrated customers without much help from Rite Aid.
Rite Aid has cited a number of stores underperforming and the need to strengthen its overall financial performance as reasons why it has resorted to closing those 21 Bartell’s locations. These stores were a part of the coalition of pharmacies that filled millions of prescriptions of people residing throughout Washington state.
Back in 2020, the once locally owned company was sold for $95 million to Rite Aid to cope with the changes within the pharmacy industry and difficulties heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the buyout, Washington had 67 Bartell stores, but as of now, only 46 are still operating.
The closures have affected individuals like Charmaine Cooley, a Real Change vendor who sells papers in front of the former Bartell’s in lower Queen Anne. Cooley admitted selling at the location was slow at first, but it was an area vendors hadn’t established as a selling spot so she jumped at the opportunity to make it hers. Gradually, Cooley became familiar with customers who would in turn recognize her. But since the closure of the lower Queen Anne Bartell’s, Cooley immediately noticed that the visitors who would frequently visit that specific Bartell’s were barely stopping by.
“A lot of people are going elsewhere,” Cooley said. “The Bartell’s is closed, and [it] was a neighborhood fixture for years and years and years, and now it’s gone.”
The closure of the lower Queen Anne Bartell’s store in September 2023 was notably detrimental to Cooley’s income, but the store’s pharmacy was also the place she relied on to easily acquire her medication. What intensified the blow Cooley felt was the fact that the lower Queen Anne Bartell’s was the only 24-hour pharmacy in Seattle.
“But the fact that when [small] businesses started [up], they decided to close ... in that area is frustrating because now I have to leave the neighborhood to go get things,” Cooley said. “I’m kind of sad too because [there] used to be a lot of sales which helped with [my] income and if I wanted to get meds.”
Despite the obstacles the store’s closure has presented, Cooley is adamant about staying at the lower Queen Anne location and continues to sell papers to people walking through the neighborhood.
“I have no intent on leaving because I’m a part of their fixture and they’ve already had so [much] of it go away. So, I’m just trying to wait out the storm, because people will come back,” Cooley said.
Waiting for hours
Andrea Paz, another customer who used to frequent that same location, shared Cooley’s frustration when she found out the pharmacy was closing. Paz now has to make the trip uptown, which is a half a mile from the former lower Queen Anne Bartell’s 24-hour pharmacy. Paz, originally from Arizona, was drawn to Bartell’s convenience when she arrived in Washington in 2017.
The former 24-hour pharmacy allowed Paz to easily transfer her medications and build a strong relationship with her pharmacist, who Paz said understood her beyond her medical history. Paz said a foundation of trust was established between them that she is now finding difficult to replicate since her pharmacist left that location after the buyout by Rite Aid took place.
“I get controlled substances because I have anxiety and ADHD and getting [a pharmacist] to actually … spend time with you can be helpful later on about other issues that can complicate [things],” Paz said.
Paz’s former pharmacist was able to support her in navigating the tedious medical system and help her receive her prescriptions in a timely manner. If the 24-hour pharmacy wasn’t answering its phone, Paz could easily walk a couple blocks down, at any hour, to pick up her medication.
Christina, a registered nurse in Seattle who didn’t want to disclose her full name due to privacy concerns, has also had patients complain to her about the closure of the 24-hour pharmacy. She said it has been difficult for patients to find other accessible pharmacies. In an effort to ensure patients get their prescriptions in a timely manner, Christina has been advising patients to call or visit a Bartell’s pharmacy as early as possible.
“There’s a lot of barriers for a lot of different people,” Christina said. “I wish Rite Aid and Bartell Drugs realize just how diverse their patient population is and try to be more understanding toward them.”
It isn’t simple for patients to have their medication switched since different pharmacies might not accept a patient’s insurance or might have varying transferral processes that can impact a patient’s well-being. Paz mentioned feeling dread when she’s behind on ordering more medication, as the wait time is already a tiring process in itself.
Before the 24-hour pharmacy officially closed but after the buyout by Rite Aid, Paz already noticed a difference. Things became slower than usual; what used to be a 20- or 30-minute wait at the pharmacy instead became two hours. If Paz wanted to call the pharmacy to check on the status of her medication, no one would answer, and the call would abruptly end instead of allowing Paz to leave a voicemail. Despite these frustrations, Paz said she doesn’t plan on transferring her prescriptions from the upper Queen Anne Bartell’s, where Paz switched to after the 24-hour pharmacy closed, because the other pharmacies closer to her, such as CVS or Walgreens, don’t meet her standards of a welcoming environment.
“They have this RoboCop surveillance thing, and it’s awful,” Paz said. “It’s just very uncomfortable. There’s a security guard, which I personally don’t [think] it makes me more safe — it doesn’t.”
Paz has filed multiple complaints to Rite Aid but has yet to receive a response.
Her struggles are shared by Cooley, who mentioned she and other people she knows have had to reestablish in a new location to receive their prescriptions. It’s also been equally difficult for Bartell’s employees to provide customers with a simple shopping and pharmaceutical experience.
It’s also been equally difficult for Bartell’s employees to provide customers with a simple shopping and pharmaceutical experience. One employee, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation from their employer, works at a Bartell’s in North Seattle and shared how customers who call in wanting an update about their medications have yelled at them about the pharmacy not answering their phone.
“They’ve been getting fed up and transferring their prescription out because they can’t get their prescription filled at all,” the employee said. “There’s been times where the lines are so long — all day, long — that people aren’t getting their prescriptions [for] days at a time.”
These challenges aren’t unique to the pharmacies, as the employee said retail has also taken a hit. They shared there’s been several aisles left partly empty due to a shortage of multiple items, adding to the stressful customer shopping experience.
“People are getting frustrated because there’s been no products in the store. There are aisles empty that people are coming in and asking for. Now, it’s just random stuff we can’t get anymore,” the employee said.
They added that there’s been no communication established between Rite Aid management and Bartell’s employees, leaving staff with no support for dealing with the shortages. In an email, a Rite Aid spokesperson wrote the store regularly assesses its retail footprint in order to meet the needs of customers and aid employees in meeting those needs.
The parent company’s actions have made it exceedingly difficult for the North Seattle Bartell’s employee to carry out their job. They mentioned three other employees have quit recently, further heightening the situation at their already short-staffed store. The employee shared multiple instances of managers bullying and scaring employees for not meeting their expectations, which includes carrying the workload of several employees. This is a stark contrast from the previous 13 years this employee has worked at Bartell’s, when they’d only ever had a good supervising relationship with their previous manager.
So far, it’s been the employee’s union representative, Dominick Ojeda at UFCW 3000, who’s helped them deal with the challenges at their workplace. Ojeda said, along with the lack of effort in creating opportunities for better pay and benefits for employees, Rite Aid has been reducing union members’ hours significantly.
“That has definitely caused pain for workers, particularly at Bartell’s, who’ve worked there for 10, 15, even 30 years,” Ojeda said. “[They’ve] dedicated their lives to the work and communities that have relied on these pharmacies.”
There’s also been a reluctance to offer access to workplace development, according to Ojeda, who works one on one with the Bartell’s employees. Additionally, despite sharing a similar health care plan with union members from different grocery outlets, Ojeda has noticed Rite Aid attempting to alter employees’ health care plans. This comes after employees fought extensively for a more accessible and affordable plan.
Rite Aid also hasn’t taken steps to ensure the safety of its employees at Bartell’s when retail crimes take place, according to Ojeda. The employee from the North Seattle Bartell’s claimed that when the buyout took place in 2020, the paid time off (PTO) employees collected over the years disappeared. Before the buyout, Bartell’s allowed PTO to roll over to the new year per an agreement laid out in its union contract. The employee was able to resolve the issue but did not receive a warning or explanation for Rite Aid’s actions, leaving the employee and their co-workers even more frustrated.
Real Change reached out to Rite Aid to address the employee’s claim and the other issues employees face. A representative of the parent company responded in an email that Rite Aid does its best to uphold safety policies for employees and works closely with law enforcement to deal with retail crime.
“Safety is among our highest priorities as a company, and we are committed to providing a safe environment for our associates and customers as we support the health needs of the communities we serve,” said Alicja Wojczyk, a Rite Aid spokesperson. “We maintain the highest level of safety policies and protocols across our stores, and we actively partner with local law enforcement agencies to address local retail-related crime and advocate for solutions that protect our stores and our communities.”
Ojeda said Bartell’s had its problems even before the buyout and that Rite Aid is elevating the problems they’re seeing and employees are facing.
“Bartell’s was no worker-friendly company before it got bought out,” Ojeda said. “It wasn’t a particularly easy bargain, but it was certainly different.”
Ojeda pointed out another challenge: the closures have effectively reduced the number of union members needed for bargaining during contract negotiations. This ultimately impacts the possibility of union members having their demands implemented into the workplace. Rite Aid claims 75% of its employees have been transferred to Rite Aid stores that are still open. However, an employee would lose their union benefits if they were to be transferred to a non-unionized Rite Aid or Bartell’s, according to Ojeda.
“We never bargain contracts without members at the table and making sure that their voices are not just heard but are at the forefront of the decisions in what a contract would be,” Ojeda said.
UFCW 3000’s approach is how employees, like the one who works from the North Seattle Bartell’s location, are motivated to take part in contract negotiations. The employee stressed the importance of wanting to connect and help more employees understand their rights. It took many years for this employee to familiarize themselves with their own rights in the workplace, and they want to make that process more accessible for workers dealing with the complications of an intolerant managing company.
In the current bargaining phase, Bartell’s employees are fighting to ensure Rite Aid provides extensive safety measures when it comes to retail crime, continual health care benefits and meaningful wage increases.
Read more of the Jan. 24-30, 2024 issue.