Pharmacist break policy interpreted

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Many state boards of pharmacy allow pharmacists to take breaks, subject to specific requirements ensuring that product security and patient safety are maintained within the pharmacy during a pharmacist break. In a recent case from Pennsylvania, a pharmacist was denied unemployment compensation after being discharged because he took a break outside the store while the pharmacy department remained unsecured. The Unemployment Compensation Board of Review (UCBR) ruled that the pharmacist had engaged in willful misconduct.

Factual background

The pharmacist had worked full time for more than 11 years at the pharmacy from which he was discharged. The pharmacy’s policy allowed pharmacists one 15-minute break for every 4 hours worked and required pharmacists who were working without another pharmacist to remain in the area of the pharmacy department even while on breaks so that they could be available for counseling patients and for emergencies.

Pharmacists could leave the area of the pharmacy department during their breaks, but were required to roll down and lock the security shutters while they were gone. If a pharmacist left the store with no other pharmacist on duty, he was required to activate the alarm system in the pharmacy area and lock the security shutters.

The pharmacist who was discharged had worked as the only pharmacist on the 9:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m. shift. Evidence showed that he left the store on at least three evenings without setting the alarm. His employment was terminated for violating pharmacy rules.

The pharmacist filed an application for unemployment benefits, but the application was denied by UCBR. The pharmacist appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.

Rationale

In reviewing the UCBR ruling, the court noted that under the law, an employee is ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits if discharged from work for willful misconduct. The definition of willful misconduct includes “a deliberate violation of the employer’s rules,” as well as “a disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has a right to expect of an employee.”

The court reviewed evidence showing that the pharmacy’s break rules had been reviewed with the pharmacist through both a Code of Conduct and Daily Procedures. The pharmacy provided security photographs showing that the pharmacist had left the store during shifts he worked with no other pharmacist and had failed to activate the alarm when he left.

The pharmacist testified that he was not aware of the policy prohibiting pharmacists from leaving the store and, in fact, had been advised by his supervisor years earlier that it was permissible for pharmacists to leave the store during breaks. The pharmacist also testified that he had taken such breaks for years and had never been disciplined for doing so. The supervisor denied ever having told the pharmacist that it was permissible to leave the store during breaks without following the procedures provided for in the company policies.

The court agreed with UCBR’s conclusion that the pharmacist’s testimony that he was unaware of the pharmacy’s break procedures was not credible. The court concluded that the pharmacist had violated rules to which he was subject and that he did not have good cause to violate the rules. The court affirmed UCBR’s conclusion that the pharmacist had engaged in willful misconduct.

Discussion

As independently licensed health professionals, pharmacists have significant latitude within which to practice at the pharmacies where they are employed. Pharmacies must defer to the professional judgment of their pharmacists in matters such as the validity of controlled substance prescriptions, the appropriateness of a medication for a patient who reports relevant drug allergies, the type of information to convey to patients receiving risky medications, and other situations where weighing pros and cons requires professional expertise.

There are many other situations, however, in which pharmacies that employ pharmacists must set rules and expect that they will be obeyed. This case demonstrates that one such situation is the pharmacy’s policy toward breaks taken by pharmacists. Based on the standards established by most boards of pharmacy, policies may require that pharmacists stay nearby in case they are needed. If a pharmacist must leave the pharmacy department area during a break, then the department must be closed and secured. Pharmacists who fail to comply with such requirements can expect that they will be found to have engaged in willful misconduct.

Based on: Sarracino v UCBR, 2013 Pa. Commw. Unpub. LEXIS 71 (January 24, 2013).

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