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Complicated legal grounds muddy fight for a living wage at Disneyland but workers aren't backing off


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As the nation continues to face the novel coronavirus pandemic, many eyes are on restaurant and child care workers, given the enormous amount of job instability and high exposure risks that come along with the virus. We know that food and housing insecurity have been significant issues for families across the nation, too, whether they’ve maintained a stable source of income or not. The pandemic has undoubtedly brought to light ongoing labor issues, including chronically underpaid workers. One example? A California theme park beloved by many—where some workers say they’ve had to survive by sleeping in their cars.

25,000 current and former Disneyland workers—or cast members, as the company calls them—are part of a class-action lawsuit alleging that the company is legally obligated to pay them a living wage. As reported by The New York Times in 2018, Disneyland workers have reported having to sleep in their cars or drive hours in each direction to crash at someone else’s home. Even before the pandemic, many reported struggling with food insecurity. According to a valet who spoke to the SFGate in an interview, a recent breaking point has been a change in job duties that’s resulted in far fewer tips—and as a minimum wage worker, those tips resulted in a significant loss of income.

As some background, Disney laid off more than 30,000 workers during pandemic-related closures. Some workers were also furloughed. The company got some serious positivity for paying all workers a month of wages back in March 2020 and because it has continued to provide health insurance to its workers. It has also provided additional paid sick time due to the pandemic. We know that live entertainers for Disney were hit especially hard, with the cast and crew members of some shows being dropped entirely.

In terms of the lawsuit, it was initially filed in 2019 but gained class-action status in July of 2021. In short, it’s complicated. Workers—which include both union and non-union folks—argue that Disney receives tax breaks from the city of Anaheim. Because the city requires any business receiving subsidies from the city to pay a living wage, Disney workers should be receiving higher pay. For reference, California’s minimum wage is currently $14 an hour. Businesses that receive subsidies under the aforementioned ordinance were directed to pay workers $15 an hour initially, increasing to $18 per hour by 2022. Cost of living raises are also part of this requirement.

In 2020, the OC Register published a report on Disney amid the pandemic, suggesting that the average salary was about $40,000 per year, which works out to about $19 an hour.

Both Disney and the city of Anaheim, however, argue that its agreement is not a subsidy.

Gabriel Sarracino, who has worked at the Disneyland Hotel for 15 years, tells SFGate that employees feel that “there’s always somebody else that will fill our spot.” Sarracino describes working as a valet, which involves parking cars and helping those staying at the hotel with their bags, to SFGate, noting that he’s been paid minimum wage that entire time and relied on tips from guests to survive.

Based on industry norms, Sarracino (and likely others in his position) earned more in tips from bringing up luggage than parking cars. But because valets can no longer handle luggage—which the outlet reports is a leadership decision—the long-time employee says his income has significantly dropped.

Sarracino explains that he and his wife, plus their two children, live in affordable housing to help them survive but that they have dreams of buying a house and reinvesting money into their community. Understandably, without tips, those dreams are essentially out of reach when one is making only minimum wage, especially in a state with a high cost of living like California.

Sarracino adds to the outlet that landlords are notorious for raising rents whenever they can in the area, assumably knowing that there’s enough demand that they won’t run out of people able to make it work. So why Disney? For Sarracino—and likely many others who stay loyal to the parks—a lot of the magic has to do with the true joy and excitement guests express when visiting and the overall brand loyalty folks feel to Disney.

The company also provides perks, including things like subsidies for higher education, public transportation, and elder and child care. Many Disneyland workers are—thankfully— protected by unions, but a considerable population isn’t.

The lawsuit relies on some complicated legal territory, and it’s unclear how things will pan out as of now. What is clear is that every worker deserves a real living wage and job security and resources to live a full, healthy, balanced life. Workers deserve to do more than survive.