Minimum wage bump makes life (a little) easier for theme park workers
Image via AP.

'It’s not about Disney's ability to afford it. They can afford anything.'

Amber Smith couldn’t keep up with her bills when she started at Disney World six years ago, so she found a second job — at Universal.

It was a schedule from hell. She worked seven days a week and then retreated at night to a house she shared with six roommates.

“I definitely drank too much coffee and too many energy drinks to try to get by,” Smith said. “My body would just be completely tired.”

Smith is one of 38,000 Disney World Resort union employees whose pay is on the rise, making life a little bit easier, she said. The minimum wage for Disney World union employees jumped to $15 an hour starting Oct. 3, and those getting paid above that get at least a 75-cent hourly raise, according to the union.

The new minimum wage was years in the making after Disney and its largest union coalition reached an agreement in 2018 to gradually bring the $10-an-hour starting wage up to $15 by this month. Union leaders had hailed the $15 as historic for workers.

“It’s huge,” said Eric Clinton, leader of UNITE HERE 362, representing Disney custodians, ride workers and other employees. His members “aren’t getting rich working at Disney, but their lives have certainly improved. A $5 increase is like $10,000 annually.”

Some union members reported the raises could help with car payments or they could go on a vacation for the first time in their working lives. For others, the extra money means they can stop logging the excessive hours at Disney they once needed to stay afloat financially.

To bring the Disney World magic to guests, Bruce Gerry remembers working 80 or 90 hours while trying to raise a family when he started working there in 1997. Back then, his starting pay was around $5 an hour, he said. “I was working two or three days straight literally without going home,” he said.

Gerry said the recent raises bring his pay up to $18.62 an hour, enough that he and his girlfriend saved up to move out of the 26-foot RV they had called home and buy a house in Ocoee. The raises are going to help with the house payments, said Gerry, 46, who now works around 32 to 40 hours a week at Animal Kingdom’s Kali River Rapids ride.

The Disney contract left a rippling effect on Central Florida’s economy. Other major employers — including Disney’s biggest competitor — bumped wages too. On June 27, Universal Orlando began paying its employees at least $15 an hour.

Disney’s contract with the Service Trades Council Union, the coalition of six locals, expires in October 2022, and then the two sides are expected to return to the bargaining table.

With the $15 an hour minimum wage already secured, could Disney union workers push for $18 or $20 an hour in the next contract?

“It’s not about Disney’s ability to afford it. They can afford anything. They bought Marvel after buying Star Wars,” Clinton said.

But Clinton said it’s still too early to set bargaining goals, especially with so many factors at play from what the economy could look like next year, whether the coronavirus is at bay and whether Disney is struggling to hire enough employees. This spring, union leaders will begin polling their members on their contract priorities and what they are willing to fight for at the negotiations. The pandemic has likely caused some, including Clinton, to also think hard about getting affordable and quality health insurance.

For Smith, 31, the raises mean she can cut back her hours to 40 or 50 a week at the Magic Kingdom, where she manages the crowds for the fireworks and the Disney character cavalcades.

“I don’t have to worry about roommates. I don’t have to worry about second jobs. And I don’t have to work the crazy amount of hours that I used to. I actually have free time now,” said Smith, who goes running or can catch up on the TV shows that she fell years behind on from everybody else because of her hectic workload.

Her boyfriend, who also works at Disney, recently proposed behind Cinderella Castle.

“We just got engaged last month, which was also a huge milestone,” Smith said. “Between both of us, we never thought we could afford a wedding.”

Gabrielle Russon

Gabrielle Russon is a journalist who covers theme parks and Florida tourism. She previously worked at the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Toledo Blade and the Kalamazoo Gazette. She graduated from Michigan State University.


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