Disney workers demand immediate raise to keep up with rising rents and inflation

“I’ve seen grown men break down.”

click to enlarge But not, sadly, dreams of paying rent and medical bills. - Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
But not, sadly, dreams of paying rent and medical bills.

Central Florida, home to the so-called “Most Magical Place on Earth,” is one of the areas hardest hit by the nation’s unaffordable housing crisis, exacerbated by the economic fallout of COVID-19 and zero enforceable limits on the ability of landlords to price-gouge renter households in pursuit of greater profits. 

Workers of Orlando’s Disney World, who make what they describe as an unlivable wage for the area’s skyrocketing cost of living, say they’ve had enough. 

Amid ongoing negotiations for a new contract, they’re calling for an immediate $3 hourly pay raise from Disney, which generated a revenue of nearly $83 billion this year — $28.7 billion in the company’s theme park division alone — in what former Disney CEO Bob Chapek described as a “strong year” for the company.

But Disney workers, aka “cast members,” have a different story. The Service Trade Council Union, a coalition of six unions representing roughly 40,000 Disney workers in Orlando, held a protest Nov. 30 after Disney failed to budge on bumping up their current offer.

“We work so hard,” Roselyn Rodriguez, a quick service restaurant employee of nearly four years at Walt Disney World, told Orlando Weekly. “We don’t deserve to [have to] get a second job in order to cover our needs.”

As labor writer Hamilton Nolan described it for In These Times magazine, Disney World is “a rare island of union power” in a state where less than 4 percent of its private-sector workforce is represented by a union. In 2018, unionized Disney workers successfully negotiated a $5 minimum wage increase from $10 to $15 an hour — and a $17 minimum wage for housekeepers and cooks in 2021 — that fully went into effect last year. 

That victory, achieved ahead of Florida’s vote in 2020 to get the state on track towards a $15 minimum wage, set the standard for other major tourism employers in the area, including SeaWorld and Universal Orlando.

But, with rising rents, Disney workers say that in 2022, a $15 an hour wage is no longer sufficient to keep up with inflation and Central Florida’s cost of living — meanwhile, the tourism industry, the backbone of the local economy, enjoys profits surpassing pre-pandemic levels

“I’ve seen grown men break down,” Earl Penson, a food handler for Disney and a member of Unite Here Local 737, told this reporter shortly after getting off a 10-hour shift that began at roughly 2 a.m. 

“My situation is mild compared to a lot of guys I talk to across [Disney] properties,” Penson said. “People sleeping in their car. I mean, to actually see a grown man tear up to say he can’t pay a bill.”

Rodriguez, a leader in Local 737, said she had to put off buying pain medication last year after a foot surgery, because all of her wages went toward covering living expenses for herself and her three children in Orange County, where Disney World is located.

On leave from work, Rodriguez got short-term disability benefits to help offset the loss of income. But that was only $200 a week, she said, which wasn’t enough to cover basic necessities. Today, she still relies on credit cards just to pay her monthly bills.

Her recovery from the surgery last year, meant to last three months, ended up being cut short because she couldn’t afford not to return to work. “I told my doctor that I need to go back to work, because it was going to be impossible for me to afford my rent,” said Rodriguez.

Penson, a second-generation Disney worker of 11 years, was raised in the Orlando area, where just about one out of every five jobs is in the leisure and hospitality sector. He’s seen how the landscape of affordable housing — or the lack of, for working-class Floridians like himself — has changed.

Back in the early 1990s, the 50-year-old worked for the city of Orlando with his brother, making about $4.75 an hour. Then, he was able to pay for his own apartment, with rent about a third of what it is today, and to cover his basic needs. But today, “rent is astronomical,” he said.

A former electrician, Penson — like many of his fellow cast members, he says — works multiple jobs to make ends meet, despite his long hours at Disney, where he’s paid $15.49 an hour. Through an old connection, he occasionally picks up the odd job in electrical work, in addition to the 40 to 50 hours he puts in for Disney each week.

Penson moved back in with his parents, who are older and live on a fixed income. Once upon a time, his father also worked for Disney, as a chef. He encouraged his son to look into employment with the Mouse about a decade ago, when the market for Penson’s electrical work got slow, and Penson grew weary of having to constantly be on the move, traveling without a steady paycheck in order to find work. 

Two of Penson’s daughters, one of whom just gave birth, also recently moved back into the family home because they, like many locals, can’t make it out on their own in the current housing market. 

A living wage for a working adult with one child in Orange County is $34.37 per hour, or $23.91 for two working adults with two children. That’s far below the $15 minimum wage for Disney workers, and the $16.50 median wage of all workers represented by Unite Here Local 737, which represents about 19,000 hospitality and food service workers in Central Florida.

According to a new report released by the local, 69 percent of 2,415 union members surveyed (including but not limited to workers employed by Disney) say they haven’t had the money to pay rent or mortgage costs over the last year, 26 percent said they moved as a result of rent or mortgage increases, and 45 percent reported skipping meals to cut costs. 

“Central Florida was already difficult to afford for many hourly workers before the pandemic,” the report states. “But the last year saw the cost of living skyrocket, particularly driven by explosive rent increases that are by some measures the worst in the nation. For many tourism workers — many of whom were already living paycheck-to-paycheck — living expenses have gone from difficult to nearly impossible to pay.”

Orlando’s rent hikes have slowed some in recent months, but rent is still up 14 percent from last year, with an average rent today of $2,102. A report published in June showed a 23.7 percent increase in rent prices year-over-year, equal to hundreds of dollars more in rent for workers like Rodriguez, who works 32 to 40 hours a week making just $15 an hour.

She can barely afford to pay rent, after recently facing a $480 per month increase. Similar rent hikes of up to 30 percent or more have been reported across Orange County, where the situation has become so grave, county leaders declared a housing “state of emergency” and voted, in a historic first for Florida, to place a rent stabilization referendum on the ballot this November to cap rent hikes at 9.8 percent for certain multifamily properties for one year.

In Florida, however, rent control is pre-empted by state law. This makes the process of implementing rent control policies a Herculean, if not impossible, task, and few municipalities have attempted it. 

Corporate landlord and real estate groups filed a lawsuit against the county over the measure, and  poured nearly $2 million into an anti-rent control campaign to thwart the effort. But members of Unite Here Local 737, in addition to other advocacy groups, went out to knock doors for the rent stabilization measure, as Unite Here locals mobilized to secure votes for Democrats in other key swing states. 

In Orange County, that mobilization and the crisis at hand had an impact: Rent control earned nearly 60 percent of the vote, equal to over 225,000 votes in the Democratic-leaning county. It was more popular than either Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist or U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio challenger Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief whose husband is Orange County’s mayor. 

But the lawsuit by the corporate landlord lobby over the referendum, filed shortly after the referendum was approved for the ballot in August, has likely left the measure dead in the water. That’s unless a renewed fight by the Orange County Commission can save it.

With rising rents and inflation, a $15 an hour wage is no longer sufficient. Meanwhile, tourism, the backbone of the local economy, enjoys profits surpassing pre-pandemic levels.

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Disney, for its part, hasn’t done much to step in or step up, despite its wealth of resources. As author and NYU professor Andrew Ross documented in his book Sunbelt Blues: The Failure of American Housing, focused on Central Florida, Disney’s response to the highly publicized housing needs of its employees, in the absence of meaningful help from the local or state governments, has been dismal. 

The Disney World enterprise, described by Ross as “the most successful capitalist land development in modern history,” owns large parcels of surplus land in the region, yet has a “Grinch-like reputation” when it comes to housing that dates back decades. 

The company has donated generously to charitable organizations in Central Florida working to address homelessness, but only workers enrolled in the company’s Disney College Program have access to housing directly provided by the company.

Earlier this year, Disney announced plans to designate 80 acres of land for affordable housing development, available to applicants that would include its own employees. But it’s unclear when this development will be completed, or how much the units will cost. 

And while Disney has gotten itself into performative battles with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as a political punching bag in the Republican’s crusade against “wokeness,” the company is not hurting financially. 

Despite $65 million suffered in losses from Hurricane Ian, Disney’s theme park division still reported higher fourth-quarter earnings this year, compared to the year prior.

Over the years, they’ve also gotten help from the state. Since Gov. DeSantis first took office in 2019, his administration has approved $578 million in tax credits for Disney, which has been left untouched even amidst his feud with the “woke” tourism giant. Disney CEO Bob Chapek himself took home over $32 million in compensation last year, or roughly 644 times the median employee’s pay. 

Disney is a “formidable force” in the state Capitol, as one Florida lobbyist put it, in no small part demonstrated through their lobbying activity and their extensive history of financial contributions to Republicans and, to a lesser extent, Democrats. 

Earlier this year, Disney pledged to pause its campaign contributions indefinitely, amid the company’s feud with Gov. DeSantis over Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. But campaign finance records show that during the 2020 election cycle, Disney donated $913,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, $586,000 to the campaigns of GOP senators, and tens of thousands of dollars to DeSantis and his political committee, per Politico

So there could be trouble to come, and the Disney labor unions are on the offensive. Despite reporting record park earnings this part quarter, Disney has shared they’re planning cost-cutting measures that could include staff layoffs

click to enlarge STCU union members rallied in between bargaining sessions on Wednesday, Nov. 30 - photo via Unite Here
photo via Unite Here
STCU union members rallied in between bargaining sessions on Wednesday, Nov. 30

In statements to media, Disney has said that they’re continuing to bargain in good faith with the Service Trades Council Union in Orlando, adding that they’ve presented a “strong offer” that would raise starting wages for full-time, non-tipped workers by $1 dollar each year over five years. “If our offer is accepted, our wages will continue to outpace Florida minimum wage by at least $5 an hour,” a Disney spokesperson wrote in an unsigned statement.

The union argues that’s not good enough in a time of historic inflation. They’re pushing for a $5 raise over three years, beginning with a $3 pay raise in 2022, and a minimum pay of $18 per hour. And they may have some pull. 

“As housing and food costs continue to rise in Orlando-Kissimmee, workers need a big raise just to keep up with inflation,” says Matt Nichter, a sociology professor at Rollins College who studies social movement. “With the unemployment rate under 3 percent here, the workers have significant leverage.”

Last year, thousands of Disneyland workers represented by the Master Services Council in Los Angeles secured their own historic 19 percent pay raise, raising minimum pay from $15.50 to $18.50 per hour over three years, narrowly averting a strike after a contentious round of negotiations.

Disney’s ability to pay all of its cast members a living wage isn’t lost on the workers who generate the company’s profit. “The numbers are there,” Penson, the long-time food handler, said.

He says his Walt Disney World location has a high turnover and is often short-staffed these days, leaving workers like himself with myriad tasks — from warehousing work to lifting heavy boxes of food products and checking in with Disney’s chefs before the parks open.

Part of the problem, he said, is wages. “It’s not worth sticking around for the work that we do,” he said. He knows he could be making better money doing his old contracting gigs. But he stays put because his job at Disney offers a steady paycheck, allows him to remain local to take care of his aging parents, and because he knows he has the union on his side.

“These guys have been fighting for us,” Penson said of Unite Here. When Disney furloughed thousands of their Orlando employees in 2020, the union stepped up. The Service Trade Council Union negotiated an agreement with Disney that guaranteed the furloughed workers would keep their jobs, seniority, wage rate and benefits such as health insurance — in what the STCU at the time described as the “strongest protections” than “virtually any other furloughed or laid-off workers in the United States.”

Penson only recently joined the union, feeling disillusioned by the lack of consideration he saw for the hard work he and his co-workers do for the company, as many struggle just to get by. “They [the union] showed me that it’s important to be involved.”

Rodriguez, the QSR worker, is on the Local 737’s bargaining committee. She describes herself as a “fighter” and similarly has faith in her union’s ability to fight for a living wage for herself and her fellow cast members.

“They have fear to speak up, and I tell them, ‘No!’ We need to stop feeling that fear, because we need to raise our voice,” said Rodriguez. “We need to fight for what we deserve.”

The immediate $3 pay raise they’re asking for in the first year of their contract with Disney, in addition to other economic proposals, is “only going to cover the basic needs,” Rodriguez admitted, “But it’s going to be a good start.”

According to the union, 10,000 members of Local 737 voted in August to support the union’s proposal for a raise of at least $5 in three years for union members in all job classifications, and a staff organizer with Local 737 confirmed to Orlando Weekly that it’s a proposal supported by the entire STCU. 

Negotiations for a new three-year contract with Disney, as well as Sodexo — which employs food service staff at the Orange County Convention Center represented by Local 737 — resumed on Nov. 29, nearly one month after their last contract expired. But, if Disney fails to reach a fair agreement with the SCTU, the unions are prepared to take action.

“When a company tells us ‘No,’ we don’t back down,” Unite Here Local 737 wrote in a Facebook post. “Stay strong and stay united!”


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McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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