When did Walgreens’ associates become the contraceptive police?

Source: TikTok/@abigailmartiin; Photo: Getty Images/patty_c
Jul 14, 2022

Walgreens associates have made the news in recent weeks for refusing to sell over-the-counter and prescription contraceptives to customers based on their religious objections.

A woman visiting a Walgreens in Wisconsin while on vacation with her husband went to the store to purchase some products, including a box of condoms. The associate working the register said he would ring up all her items except for the condoms because doing so would conflict with his faith.

The customer, Jessica Pentz, the Star Tribune reports, “stared in shock at a middle-age stranger who was telling her his personal opinions trumped her constitutional rights.”

The associate called a manager over to complete the transaction while “walking away with a smirk” over the exchange.

Walgreens’ policy for such matters confirms that the worker was within his rights in refusing to complete the transaction and that he followed proper protocol (sans the departing smirk) in handing off the transaction to a coworker.

“Our company policy allows team members to step away from completing a transaction to which they have a moral objection and refer the transaction to a fellow team member or manager who will complete the customer’s request,” a Walgreens spokesperson told the Star Tribune.

Another recent Walgreens incident, this time involving a young woman seeking to refill a prescription for birth control pills, may have violated the chain’s policy.

A young woman named Abigail Martin went on TikTok to explain that she has been taking oral contraceptives for six years and was due for one of the four remaining refills on her prescription.

She described the encounter.

“When I told her what I was there for, my birth control, she looks me up and down and goes, ‘Okay, excuse me.’ She then says, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to refill that prescription. You need to call your provider’ and I said, You won’t refill it or you can’t refill it. And she goes, ‘you just need to call your provider.’”

Ms. Martin called her provider who reconfirmed the prescription with Walgreens.

Ms. Martin called the pharmacy and spoke to a woman who said her prescription would be filled before confirming the denial of service for female contraceptives had become a problem at the store in recent weeks.

“So first, they want us to stop getting pregnant and having abortions,” Ms. Martin said, “and then they don’t want to help us prevent that pregnancy.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should Walgreens and other retailers screen applicants to see if their personal views may interfere with their ability to do their jobs? How can stores manage staff to make sure that individual associates are not put in a position to deny service to customers?

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"There's just too much gray area here to let individual associates have discretion over what they will and will not sell to a paying customer."

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29 Comments on "When did Walgreens’ associates become the contraceptive police?"

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Mark Ryski

The personal views of an associate should not impact my ability to buy a product the retailer sells. What if an associate has an issue with excess sugar in soft drinks and refuses to sell shoppers a bottle of Coke? Where does this end? Retailers should screen for workers who have open minds and are willing to do their work, including completing transactions for products that they don’t personally believe in. If not, then don’t work at the retailer in question.

Craig Sundstrom

Although the customer service issues certainly cross the 49th Parallel, this seems like it might be a time when the legal issues don’t: how are religious freedom and hiring discrimination issues dealt with in Canada? Are there (potentially) overriding constitutional issues and if so who decides them?

Neil Saunders

Retailers are there to provide a service to customers without judgement. That said, sometimes staff will be uncomfortable with providing certain goods and it is reasonable that their rights are respected. The retailer should manage this effectively, perhaps by putting an associate to work in an area where this isn’t an issue. However where this is unavoidable the clear policy should be a polite “let me get my colleague to assist you with that.” Complete denial of service or rudeness or lecturing customers should be a sackable offense – quite simply because it is misconduct and unacceptable. Once again, the issue here comes down to not respecting others: you may have a religious or moral objection to something, but you don’t get to shove it down everyone else’s throats. And to note: none of this applies to public or government services, if you’re paid by the taxpayer you provide services free of discrimination. That’s the law!

Bob Phibbs

This is bulls***. If they don’t want to be all-in, weed them out. I am so angry that this behavior is being normalized. The smirk only made it worse.

Paula Rosenblum

In my local Walgreens, the pharmacy techs haven’t been masked for months, you wait on the drive thru line for an hour (no, I am not exaggerating) and they treat you like a drug addict if your doctor has ordered calming drugs for you.

They get great press for their automation initiatives. Their service levels are beyond awful, and this is just another manifestation of their employees doing whatever they want.

Gene Detroyer

Should Walgreens and other retailers screen applicants to see if their personal views may interfere with their ability to do their jobs? No, that to me is very inappropriate. But they should make it clear that they are expected to serve every customer completely, even if it is counter to their beliefs.

How can stores manage staff to make sure that individual associates are not put in a position to deny service to customers? If an incident occurs, fire them. See the first paragraph.

Paula Rosenblum

So, let’s get this straight — it’s okay to screen employees with drug tests, but not with religious tests? As you said, be consistent and fire them.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

Retailers are in the business of selling goods and services to the public. If an associate is unable to conduct a transaction due to personal beliefs, they are in effect self-selecting out of their job. The associate’s actual complaint is with the retailer for selling the objectionable items. The customer should never suffer from a retailer’s decision to inventory certain products. Walgreens’ protection of associates’ rights should not extend to choosing what they will or will not ring up.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Yes – screen for any objections, then allow one in-person warning and then fire them. Their personal beliefs are not the company’s beliefs and the employee has no business working in a place that violates their beliefs.

Jenn McMillen

Ouch, that’s a gray line. What if I’m anti-animal testing? Can I refuse to sell someone makeup? If I’m Mormon, can I refuse to sell caffeinated beverages? There’s just too much gray area here to let individual associates have discretion over what they will and will not sell to a paying customer.

Cathy Hotka

This is an outrage. How dare a company question its customers’ desire to purchase a product THAT THEY SELL? It’s a good thing that I wasn’t the customer treated this way, because if I were, associates would still be talking about my behavior today.

Rich Kizer

This is beyond comprehension. The only way through this is to not allow someone in the store to be subjected to breaking their moral beliefs. In that case, doesn’t it sound like the customer is NOT king anymore? Long live the customer. Where does this lead to?

Al McClain

If it’s legal and the business sells it, then the associates who work there need to keep their personal beliefs to themselves. If they don’t want to sell the items in the store, they need to find work elsewhere. Where does it end?

Mohamed Amer, PhD

Yes! Walgreens’ protection of associates’ rights does not extend to choosing what they will or will not ring up.

Scott Norris

This was exactly the scenario the politicians and lobbyists behind the Religious Freedom Restoration Act were hoping for — individual citizens refusing to prepare cakes for gay people, not covering contraception in their health insurance, denying adoption services to atheists, refusing to open bank accounts for Muslims. And this Supreme Court seems happy with this direction.

Lisa Goller

Retailers may start screening applicants as more controversial issues divide citizens. When personal convictions impede service, the dynamics need to change.

Policies, training and escalation processes can keep retail welcoming and avoid gatekeeping and exclusion.

Jeff Sward

Why would somebody seek and accept a job that at some point will surely put them in conflict with their personal views? Why knowingly put themselves and their employer in that kind of predicament? Having said that, how can the employer screen for this kind of scenario without running afoul of freedom of speech and religion? In the end, a business owner has the right to conduct their business in an honest and ethical manner without having to tolerate on-the-job performance that sabotages the business. Schedule an exit interview. It’s crazy that we even have to have this conversation.

Roland Gossage
1 month 4 days ago

In this case if it were against the associate’s religion, just working at a retailer that promotes, makes available or sells these products would also be against his religion. I think screening potential employees by asking if they are OK transacting all the products that Walgreens sells is a fair interview question. It’s doesn’t matter why the candidate answers no, but being willing to sell everything the retailer sells should be a prerequisite of employment.

Lee Peterson

A moral objection to contraception? Is this circa 1522? Wow. Anyway, the stores that should have this policy are the gun stores, but I guess that’s a giant can of worms. In principle, Walgreens’ policy is a good one, as long as the customer is served. However there are so many things now that fall under the category of “moral,” they’re really asking for a plethora of new problems you can only hope could be managed.

Dick Seesel

Walgreens sells alcohol and tobacco, too. Do the sales associates objecting to birth control products have the same issue with these categories? (I’m guessing not.) A pharmacy is no place to make moral judgments about what customers buy, and a stronger pre-screening effort would help avoid this kind of embarrassment.

Doug Garnett

Stores need, desperately, to respect employee skills and abilities. But this is a way of giving employees the ability to dictate policy to the store. I suppose I’m old fashioned, but it seems that accepting a job accepts the work included with it. Employees shouldn’t be allowed to avoid that work (unless it’s illegal work or inappropriately dangerous) because they’ve chosen to adopt a belief.

Mel Kleiman
This discussion makes me wish that I was a morning person so that I could have given my solution to the problem earlier. Everyone but one person who voted in the polling question has felt that we need to hire employees who are into customer service and not acting on their personal beliefs. So what is the simple solution? For years I have suggested to my client that they develop what I call a commitment card. The card outlines the company’s values and its employees’ expected behavior. Before offering the job, ask the applicant to read the commitment card and agree to the standards that the card states. Have them check the boxes next to each standard and sign and date the card. Once this is done, a job offer is made, a copy of the card is given to the person, and a copy goes into their personnel file. Here are a couple of examples of what is on the card: Treat every customer and co-worker as I wish to be treated – with… Read more »
Peter Charness

Pharmacy techs/pharmacists have to dispense what the doctor has ordered. They can confirm an order, but if they refuse to fill the order they should surrender (or lose) their licenses. Customer service does not include hassling a shopper, and the pharmacy can’t be second guessing the provider. Walgreens and everyone else needs to put this Pandora back in its box.

Carlos Arambula

“Screen applicants”? Isn’t it called a job interview? If the applicant is unable to perform the required job duties, select another applicant.

Ryan Mathews

Screening for beliefs — especially religious beliefs — is an HR minefield, so I’m not sure I’d advocate that. But during on-boarding it should be made explicitly clear that every associate is expected to complete every legal transaction, regardless of their individual beliefs. Period. Full stop. What would Walgreens do if an associate in recovery refused to sell alcohol and/or CBD products and/or medications containing habit forming or addictive drugs? Or, what would happen if the entire staff felt the way the WI clerk did? This is a clear example of the lunatics running the asylum.

Craig Sundstrom

This might seem to be an issue with a simple remedy: ask applicants “is there anything that would prevent you from doing your job?” but the problem arises when they answer “yes” … is it discrimination if you refuse to hire them? Is it an invasion of privacy if you ask them to clarify their answer?

Hopefully this is, as a practical matter, an uncommon occurrence. I would think, for example, that a prohibitionist wouldn’t want to work at a liquor store; but stores that offer a large variety of goods and services have a bigger problem.

Phil Rubin

Once upon a time there was a democratic notion that separates church and state. The same should be applied to retail. This is a fundamental problem of policy, training management and leadership and should be fixed (easily). There should be signage and a top down commitment of a business in the “health” category to be respectful of what products people purchase and are prescribed. This is not only absurd but pathetic.