25,000 Disney Workers Wish Upon A Class Action Lawsuit, Demand A Living Wage
In 2018, Occidental College published a really depressing study showing that 11 percent of Disneyland employees — or cast members, as they're called — have been homeless in the last two years (while employed by Disney); that over half were concerned about being able to make rent; and that 68 percent had been food insecure, and 79 percent of employees who have kids. Thirty-one percent percent said they had to travel over an hour to go to work because they can't afford to live anywhere near Anaheim, California.
It was in response to that study that labor organizers pushed — successfully — for Measure L, which required businesses receiving tax subsidies from the city to raise their minimum wage to $18 an hour by 2022, with wages continuing to increase as the cost of living increases.
Discovering these living conditions for his members was the main reason Austin Lynch, Orange County coordinator for Unite Here Local 11, which represents about 2,700 employees of Disneyland's hotels, started gathering signatures for an initiative in Anaheim. "The crux of the initiative was: if you are getting taxpayer subsidies in the resort area, then you should be paying a living wage," he told SFGATE. "It was based on the reality that Disney has gotten hundreds of millions of dollars in tax giveaways over the years. In return, [they should] pay enough for people to live."
Unfortunately, while Measure L moved Disney to increase its starting wage to $15 an hour for employees in California and Florida, both the company and the city agree that Measure L does not apply to Disney, because they don't count the city gifting the theme park $550 million for a garage as a subsidy. Twenty-five thousand workers disagreed and signed on to a class action lawsuit to demand the park raise wages in accordance with the ordinance.
The suit, which was granted class action status in July, will determine whether $550 million contributed by Anaheim to construction of Disneyland's Mickey and Friends garage constitutes a city subsidy. At the heart of the issue is whether Disney is taking a city subsidy because of the complicated way Anaheim is repaying municipal bonds it took out to pay for construction of the garage, which opened in 2000. The bonds are being repaid largely through taxes Disney pays and through hotel room taxes collected by the city as well. Randy Renick, the attorney who filed the class action suit, believes that repayment constitutes a city subsidy, since Disneyland keeps the revenue from the garage even though it was financed by the city.
Anaheim city spokesman Mike Lyster says it doesn't count because the park and the city have a shared interest -- Disney wants to attract visitors to spend money at its theme parks and those visitors mean revenue for the city. However, that is usually why governments offer subsidies in the first place, or why they are supposed to be offering them. It's pretty messed up to spend taxpayer money on something that doesn't benefit them or the city at all.
Lyster lists the lovely things Disney has done for its employees, such as the $15 minimum wage increase, making all employees eligible for health insurance and covering the costs of education. And sure, it deserves credit for those things, but that doesn't make the other problems go away. That doesn't then make it okay that the people who work there are not making enough money to survive.
"I believe that their model changed in a more positive way and that the old Disney wouldn't necessarily have done that," Lynch said in reference to that health insurance coverage. "The new Disney does deserve credit for making those decisions. But they still have several thousand workers, including subcontracted Sodexo workers, who are still at minimum wage, including thousands of tip workers."
Tips are always variable, but in the case of [15-year Disney valet Gabriel] Sarracino, it's actually Disney that impacts what those tips can be. The company's recent decision to prevent valets from handling baggage has taken away a substantial amount of Sarracino's earnings through luggage tips, which he said tend to be larger than — or at least supplemental to — tips from parking a guest's car.
"At the snap of their fingers, Disney insists on making changes that take half of the valets' tipped income away," Lynch added.
That's not cool.
Anaheim is an expensive place to live, and therefore it is an expensive place to have employees. You can't locate your business in an expensive area — which has certain benefits — and then pay your employees as if they lived somewhere with a much lower cost of living. That doesn't work. That's why no one in the Hamptons can get their eyebrows waxed, weed their gardens, hire a laundress or even go out to dinner now. There is no housing available for people who are not super-rich, and therefore no servants to attend to their needs.
The people who work at Disney really, really like their jobs. They like getting to interact with guests, they like the atmosphere. They just want to also be able to pay rent and eat food. That seems fair. That seems like something Disney should do independent of any local ordinances. Any place that wants to be the happiest place on earth ought to make sure its workers can at least survive.
As Abigail Disney herself said in a Washington Post op-ed last year:
Here is my suggestion to the Walt Disney Co. leadership. Lead. If any of this rings any moral bells for you, know that you are uniquely situated to model a different way of doing business. Reward all of your workers fairly. Don't turn away when they tell you they are unable to make ends meet. You do not exist merely for the benefit of shareholders and managers. Reward all the people who make you successful, help rebuild the American middle class and respect the dignity of the men and women who work just as hard as you do to make Disney the amazing company it is.
That sure would be nice.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse