When Working in Disney World Means Being Stuck Living in a Cheap Motel
As unionized workers in Florida haggle with Disney in hopes of a wage increase, some of them are living precarious economic existences.
Illustration by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia.
The dozens of motels lining a 15-mile stretch of US Highway 192 just outside of Disney World have a secret inside: For the past two decades, they’ve increasingly served as home for many Disney World employees. Sometimes workers stay in the motels temporarily while they find permanent housing, others are forced by poverty and other circumstances to live in them for months or even years. It’s difficult to say exactly how many employees currently reside in these motels but three Disney World workers have told me the number is in the hundreds.
Clarid Patterson, a food service coordinator at Disney World, has lived in a motel since 2013, beginning shortly after she started working at the company. At the time she took care of her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, and her best friend, who has kidney issues requiring dialysis.
“My mom passed away and everything went downhill because I didn’t have her [Social Security] income anymore,” Patterson told me. “I tried to get public assistance for food stamps, but they told me I was making too much. How can you make too much if you can’t make ends meet?”
Even when she works overtime above her typical 40 hours a week, she can’t save enough to afford to pay for the costs of moving into an apartment on her $11.65 hourly wage. (Minimum wage in Florida is $8.25, and Disney World’s lowest hourly rate is $10.) Apartment rental prices in the Orlando area are among the fastest growing in the nation; in 2017, average rents here increased by 5.6 percent, twice the national average, according to the real estate data firm Yardi Matrix. The average one-bedroom goes for just under $1,100 a month, but it’s not just the cost of rent that prevents Patterson from moving. She’s also trapped by landlords who require prospective tenants to meet requirements difficult for low-wage workers like her.
“Some places waive application fees, some don’t or I’m not qualified because I don’t make three times the amount of rent,” Patterson said. (She often pays more than a third of her monthly income to stay in the motel, she added.) “If you’re by yourself, you can’t get your own place. You need to have multiple people living with you, and you might not be comfortable with them, but you have to survive. Disney needs to give us a little bit more so we can make ends meet.”
Patterson and the other Disney employees I spoke with told me motel management would evict them if they spoke to the media on their property. Patterson said her motel is an extended stay, so she isn’t required to frequently change rooms at least. Weekly fees often fluctuate without warning, though she claims to pay an average of around $230 a week. The washer and dryers available rarely work, she said, the rooms have no kitchens, and motel guests face eviction if they keep any kind of hot plate in their rooms. It’s not uncommon for the water to be shut off in the building if any other room has a plumbing issue, according to Patterson.
She is a member of Unite Here 737, a union of service workers, one of six in Orlando representing 38,000 Disney World Cast Members (the park term for employees). The group of unions have asked Disney to increase the park’s minimum wage from $10 an hour to $15 in contract negotiations over the past year, which Patterson says would enable her to finally move out.
On May 2, Disney World management offered two proposals. The first would increase wages by $0.50 an hour annually—an offer that 93 percent of union members already rejected in a December vote. The second proposal, which the union is considering, would increase wages to $15 an hour by 2021 in exchange for scaling back overtime, holiday pay, and employment and scheduling protections agreed upon in past contracts with Disney. (Patterson believes this latter agreement would result in her going from 40 to 32 hours a week.)
“We proposed a 50 percent wage increase, the largest we have ever offered, which includes an industry-leading path to a $15 an hour starting wage by 2021, one of the highest in Central Florida,” Disney World spokesperson Andrea Finger told me in an email.
Disney did not respond to specific questions about wages. When I asked if the company knew how many employees lived in motels, a spokesperson replied, “I don’t have that number for you.” (Disney is an investor in VICE Media, the company that owns VICE.com.)
Disney World responded to allegations of low pay in a website explainer that says, “We agree our Cast Members deserve a raise, which is why we’ve offered an increase of 6-10 percent over the next two years for all existing Service Trades Council Union (STCU) Cast Members.” The site also says that full-time STCU employees who don’t earn tips make $13.34 an hour on average when overtime is factored in and that Disney World donated $3.7 million to anti-homelessness organizations in 2017.
One Disney World employee who told me they make $13.02 an hour, close to the average rate cited by the website, is still struggling. They told me they have worked at the park for 17 years, and did not want me to use their name because they feared for their job. “At 40 hours, I have around $120 extra after rent each week and around $100 for the week for food and living expenses after bus fare,” the employee, who has lived in a motel with a coworker for nearly three years, told me.
For some, living in a motel means not just lacking some amenities like kitchens or reliable laundry machines; they also experience periods of homelessness when they can’t pay the room fees. “I would pay for three or four nights a week, whatever I could afford out of that week’s paycheck, and the rest of the nights my 12-year-old daughter and I slept in my car,” said one Disney World employee of four years who asked to be kept anonymous to protect her job. “Many times I would drive to Disney property and park my car there because I knew it was a safe place.”
The only reason this Disney World employee was able to escape this cycle was the help of a nonprofit transitional housing service for homeless single mothers called HOME, but finding permanent housing was still a challenge. “You can spend $200 to fill out an apartment application and background check, but still get rejected,” she told me.
Disney World employees say it’s difficult to find higher-paying work—the park is such a large employer in the Orlando area that it sets the wage standard, according to a 2007 report from a team of economists that examined the effects of lowered wages from 1998 to 2006. And some told me they enjoyed working for Disney and the park, they just wanted to earn a little more. “I love what I do, despite the low pay,” the employee who has worked there for 17 years said.
Disneyland workers in Anaheim, California, face similar issues. Sixty-year-old Karen Dist has worked at Disneyland in food prep for 12 years and has lived in a motel with her daughter and two granddaughters since 2011. “I live paycheck to paycheck, I pay $260 a week. If we were to get a two-bedroom for the four of us, it would be around $1,800 and a cheap one bedroom is $1,350,” Dist told me.
“With those extra wages, I could put a little bit of money away. Right now, I don’t have any. It would be nice if we could get a raise, I think it would help a lot of people,” Dist, who currently makes $13 an hour, said. “I used to work overtime a lot. They don’t appreciate you, even if you’re picking up shifts for other people. The pay is not very good to live on. You have good medical benefits, but you need enough money put in. I need orthopedic shoes... My back bothers me every day, because I’m shorter and I’m reaching, bending, stretching, and everything else all day, but I push myself to do as much as I can.”
Dist told me that she relies on the few extra dollars she gets every month from recycling bottles and cans to help pay her medical co-pays.
The Walt Disney Company is negotiating with unions that represent some Disneyland workers. In addition, an alliance of unions are currently backing a ballot measure in the city of Anaheim to force large employers like Disneyland to pay at least $15 an hour, and increase it until it reaches $18 by 2022. Some local businesses say that such an increase would lead to lost jobs or reduced work hours due to the funds required for the pay increases.
At Disney World, according to Unite Here 737 President Jeremy Haicken, a similar ballot measure wouldn’t be possible because the park is part of a municipality called the Reedy Creek Improvement District inside of which the company has broad powers. But negotiations between the company and the park’s union workers are ongoing, and unions seem to be taking the latest proposal—which would raise wages while limiting hours and benefits—seriously.
"This proposal is an important step in our effort to achieve a living wage for all Central Florida hospitality workers, BUT we need to consider it with caution,” the unions told Disney World employee members in a statement. “Disney’s proposed raises would come at the cost of other key protections for you, from overtime, to scheduling, and your rights on the job. If we settle, we want it to be fair.”
Meanwhile, individual workers are struggling to make ends meet.
“I have to do it paycheck to paycheck,” Patterson told me. “I try to do what I can do with the little bit that I make.”
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