Down and out in Disneyland: study finds most LA workers can’t cover basic needs

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New survey finds three-quarters of employees dont earn enough for basic expenses, while one in 10 have experienced homelessness

Billie Taylor is in her fifth year working at Disneyland in California as a front-of-house employee at a restaurant called the Smokejumpers Grill. Warm and vivacious, she says she loves interacting with guests from around the world. “This is one of the best things that happened to me,” she said. “I was born to do this.”

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She’s not as sunny when she talks about her life outside of work.

Earning $11.50 an hour, Taylor cannot afford anywhere to live in Orange County, where Disneyland is located, and is sleeping on friends’ couches. For a long time, Taylor thought she was the only person who struggled with homelessness and poverty on Disney wages, but a new study indicates otherwise.

Almost three-quarters of the 5,000 respondents to the survey, which was commissioned by 11 union organizations, said they do not earn enough money to cover basic expenses every month. And more than one in 10 reported having experienced homelessness in the past two years.

Those in need include a food worker who can only afford to eat one meal a day and a hotel cleaner who had to choose between Christmas gifts for her children and rent.

The findings are contested by Suzi Brown, a Disney spokeswoman, who called the report “inaccurate and unscientific” and said it was “paid for by politically motivated labor unions and its results are deliberately distorted” because only a self-selecting portion of the 17,000 unionized employees participated. She said the full-time, hourly wage of Disney staffers was around $37,000 in 2017.

Billie
Billie Taylor in her role at the Smokejumpers Grill. Photograph: Courtesy of Billie Taylor

In southern California, where soaring rents are worsening a severe homelessness crisis, this may not go very far, even with the help of food banks and shelters that Disneyland often supports. Report co-author Peter Dreier said he was surprised by “the magnitude of the suffering that people are going through”. Dreier, a professor of public policy at Occidental College, mentioned what he called “ironies” at Disney, like the fact that Disneyland requires its employees to smile yet 43% say they need but can’t afford dental care.

The study, which follows protests over conditions at the resort, notes that in three consecutive years, Disney’s CEO, Robert Iger, earned more than 2,000 times the income of an average Disneyland worker. It also compared the low wages of employees with the resort’s enormous financial success. The study found that from 2007 to 2016, attendance grew 21%, ticket prices went up 59%, and revenue 98%. But since 2000, the average hourly wage for Disneyland Resort workers in real dollars dropped 15%, from $15.80 to $13.36.

“The higher-ups are just so out of touch with what the cast members go through,” Taylor said. “They’re in a whole different world than we are.”

Her own situation unraveled when her decade-old SUV broke down and she could not afford the $250 repair. She took a payday loan, which ultimately cost her $1,000, and fell behind on rent. By Christmas, she was sleeping in the car she just had fixed.

“I don’t want to be a victim,” Taylor said. “I’ve had offers to move out of state, but I’m 59 years old. I’m established there, at Disney. That’s my job, that’s my career. It may not be much, but it’s something that I do very well, and I’m proud of what I do.”

Glynndana
Glynndana Shevlin, a food and beverage concierge, at work. Photograph: Courtesy of Glynndana Shevlin

The report suggested that two-thirds of Disneyland Resort workers are food insecure, meaning they lack a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.

They include Glynndana Shevlin, a food and beverage concierge at one of the resort hotels, meaning she serves wine and appetizers to suite guests. She has worked for Disney for 30 years.

“Food-wise I try to spend under $60 a week, but that only gives me about one meal a day,” she said. She can’t touch the fancy appetizers she takes up to the suites – mushroom ratatouille, teriyaki beef kabobs – and she can’t afford the employee cafeteria.

Her full-time, hourly wages have gone up only $1.60, to $15.70 since 2008, and she struggles to pay for healthcare and cholesterol medication, a storage unit, the phone bill, and car insurance. She doesn’t have enough money to pay rent for March.

“For the last couple of weeks, I bought a packet of little individual cheese packets and crackers. And that’s what I’ll have for dinner when I get home.”

Despite their hardships, three-quarters of the survey respondents say they are proud to work at Disneyland. Shevlin says she fell in love with Disney’s stories when she was a child in Oklahoma, and that moving to California and working at Disneyland was a dream come true. “They write great stories, they make money off those stories, but I don’t feel sometimes they walk the walk or talk the talk when it comes to me.”

Disney’s largest unions are launching a ballot initiative for Anaheim that would require large hospitality business such as Disney, who are benefiting from the city’s subsidies, to pay their employees at least $15 an hour beginning in 2019, $18 an hour by 2022, and subsequently continue to adjust wages for inflation.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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