Disney’s theme parks might look on the surface like some of the happiest places on earth, but brewing labor unrest in Anaheim and Orlando shows that they might actually be miserable places to work.
Currently, tens of thousands of unionized Disney workers are in a standoff in tense contract negotiations, and Disney is currently repaying them with an attack on a long-overdue bonus. Joining other megacompanies that sprinkled a short-term wage boost to “share” a tiny piece of Trump’s tax-cut windfall, Disney originally offered a $1,000 one-time bonus to its workers as a benevolent gesture. But it’s currently denying that bonus to more than 40,000 workers in Orlando and Anaheim, who are holding out in negotiations to push demands for a better contract. Meanwhile, 80,000 other Disney employees are getting the bonus with “no strings attached,” according to the union, UNITE HERE. For the workers, their right to a fair contract is worth more than the CEO’s noblesse oblige, so they’re continuing to push for more at the bargaining table, even if it means forgoing the temporary wage boost for now.
But the bonus fight is just a tiny piece of the real struggle that workers have faced for years: Losing a $1,000 bonus doesn’t compare to the wages the union says it’s been losing out on due to a lack of a decent raise for the past several years. Many workers at Disneyland Resorts in California are struggling with unlivable wages, battling poverty, homelessness, and woefully inadequate health care. So underneath Disney’s manicured landscapes, the groundskeepers, hotel cleaners, and other service workers are barely surviving.
An extensive survey of union workers at the resorts in Anaheim, by researchers at the Economic Roundtable and Occidental College, found that Disneyland turns out to be lagging behind state law in terms of progress over the years on wages and social mobility. Though Disneyland is one of the state’s major tourist attractions, drawing some $3 billion in revenue annually, the union workers surveyed in the study earn only about $11.15 per hour in a typical workweek—a marked decline in real wages since 2000. Paradoxically, wages across the region are climbing steadily, thanks to key minimum-wage reforms that were spurred by the Fight for $15 campaign, demanding $15 an hour and a union.
Though tens of thousands of Disney workers are unionized, their working conditions are actually declining. According to Dan Flaming, co-author of the study of the Anaheim resorts, though the workers’ wages rose in dollar amounts, “during that period, overall inflation was 49 percent. This means that the real value of the wages workers receive decreased by 15 percent.” Gender and racial disparities in wages also persist. Compared to white workers, who earn about $14.80 hourly, Asian American and Latino workers earn just $12.90 and $12.50. Disney has disputed these statistics, arguing that the study is “inaccurate and unscientific” and supported by labor unions.
Besides poverty wages, workers say they suffer from unstable and inadequate working schedules. Although nearly all the Anaheim workers reported that Disney was their primary source of income, barely half were able to obtain full-time work. Due to erratic and unstable scheduling at Disney, nearly two in three respondents reported that “my work at the Disneyland Resort makes it difficult to find a second job.”
The economic burden forces many workers to leave Disney. One former Anaheim employee interviewed in the report recalled that her time at Disney was “one of the best, most fun, and rewarding (personally) jobs I’ve had. But making magic doesn’t pay the bills…How are we supposed to make magic when we can’t even afford to live?”
The large majority of the Anaheim resort workers who do rely on Disney as a career—about 70 percent of them aged 30 and older—buck the stereotypes of theme-park jobs as in-between temp gigs for youth and students. While they labor long hours to construct a world of fun and fantasy for other families, workers struggle to meet basic needs for their own. Nearly eight in 10 Disney workers who depend on childcare services have trouble covering basic household expenses. About the same portion struggle with food insecurity. Health insurance is no cure-all, either: About a third of workers reported having to forgo other basic expenses to pay monthly premiums; many still remained priced out of needed services and medicines. About a sixth of part-time workers, for example, reported that they had needed mental-health counseling but couldn’t afford it—even with Disney’s insurance coverage.
And beyond the glittery gates of the theme park, keeping a roof over their head is a daily dilemma for many resort employees, with the majority reporting risk of eviction, and most renters struggling with overcrowded housing. One in 10 report going homeless within the past two years.
Compared to residents of LA County generally, the renters working at Disneyland are approximately 40 percent more likely to live in severely overcrowded conditions.
There’s no magic bullet for resolving the labor crisis at Disney, but there’s one simple measure that could instantly improve the lives of workers and boost the local economy too: Raising the base wage across the workforce to $20 an hour, the study finds, would “increase their collective buying power by $190 million a year,” and drive about $210 million in additional local spending. The goods and services that local workers would support, from restaurants to health clinics, could in turn boost the local economy’s self-reliance, separate from the domination of the Disney Corporation itself. And perhaps more locally circulating wealth could help communities sustain themselves, rather than relying on Mickey’s largesse.
Glynndana Shevlin, who has worked for Disney for nearly three decades, notes the contrast that surrounds her each day at her job selling snacks at the E-Ticket club. “I have been evicted twice. I work all day serving delicious food to people, yet I’m often hungry because I’m skipping meals,” she told researchers. “At work, I’m a clean, happy person, but when I leave and get in my car, I become a sad, unhappy person who doesn’t always know where they’re going to sleep.”
Countless workers will leave the gates of Disney tonight to return to a bleak reality of poverty. The bosses have been holding their wage bonus for ransom in Florida and California. In Anaheim, unions face a health and homelessness crisis. As the tourist season approaches, workers aren’t asking for a miracle, after all, just a way to make a decent living in the real world.