Disney’s hotels are back in business. A union fights for workers left behind
Jane Parker felt overjoyed when she returned to the Disneyland Hotel last January to work for Disney Dining. The service helped tourists and locals secure restaurant reservations throughout the Disneyland Resort’s hotels, theme parks and Downtown Disney shopping center. Parker survived a health scare before being able to answer those calls again as a phone reservation agent, a job she’s held for the past 14 years.
Diagnosed with cancer, Parker underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments before putting her condition in remission during a nearly yearlong medical leave.
Back on the job for a few weeks, she attended to the needs of callers before another health scare — this time a pandemic — quieted the lines for good.
After 15 months of closure on account of the coronavirus, the Disneyland Hotel finally reopened to guests on July 2, but the company decided to eliminate Disney Dining. While more than half of the resort’s workforce has been recalled, Parker doesn’t have a department to return to anymore. She faces an uncertain future that is poised to see both her federally enhanced unemployment benefits and subsidized COBRA health coverage end next month.
“I was just getting to a point where I didn’t have to decide whether to buy food or medicine for the week,” said Parker of pre-pandemic times. “Losing health insurance, at this point, would be devastating.”
Parker isn’t alone.
Furloughed and laid-off workers at the Disneyland, Paradise Pier and Grand Californian hotels have tried to navigate through hope, fear and confusion amid phased reopenings.
“Disney has chosen to slash entire departments and services, some of which shocked us,” said Austin Lynch, a union organizer with Unite Here Local 11. “They permanently closed Steakhouse 55 and room service at Disneyland Hotel as well as the entire food and beverage operation at Paradise Pier Hotel.”
Unite Here Local 11 represents 2,700 workers at Disney’s hotels and continues to bargain with the company to bring back more of its members. “At the same time, we are questioning whether it was proper to close these departments,” said Lynch. “Is it really true that the whole function of Disney Dining was eliminated? We’re not convinced of that.”
The union’s collective bargaining agreement secures recall rights for furloughed workers, but Lynch is also hoping to find common ground on prioritizing laid off workers for available positions. He estimates that about 50 hotel workers have been reassigned from 300 terminated jobs, so far.
After more than 400 days of closure, the Disneyland Resort continues to bring workers back during its phased reopenings while also maintaining health insurance benefits for furloughed employees who haven’t yet been recalled.
“We are proud to have returned more than 19,000 cast members, and are hiring hundreds each week,” a Disney official said in a statement provided to TimesOC. “We are prioritizing laid-off cast members with access to recruiters for other employment opportunities.”
Nicole Werner worked as a room service captain at the Disneyland Hotel before the shutdown. With room service having being eliminated, she received a letter from the company earlier this month with a link and instructions on how to apply for available positions.
“At this moment, I’ve applied for four different positions,” said Werner. “With all these different jobs opening, how hard is it to just plug us in instead of having to go through the entire recruitment process? It’s frustrating.”
Two of the positions Werner applied for are no longer available. With federally enhanced unemployment benefits ending Sept. 4, all that’s certain is that she misses the magic of guest interactions.
As Orange County contends with its third COVID-19 surge, hospitalizations may peak in the first few weeks of September.
“I don’t know what the future looks like,” said Werner. “I even told my daughter that October will be really tight for us if I don’t find a job.”
The Coalition of Resort Labor Unions, which represents 17,000 Disney workers across various unions, organized an Aug. 5 protest in Anaheim calling on the company to restore jobs throughout the resort and provide higher wages. Whether recalled or not, about a hundred of Disney hotel workers protested together in hopes of drawing attention to the issues affecting them but felt the message got lost in the mix of media reports on a larger contract fight with Disney by the bigger unions.
“It felt good to be in solidarity,” said Parker, who attended and spoke at the rally. “The other unions were looking for higher wages but that wasn’t our story. We just want our jobs back.”
For 14 years, Parker reliably answered phone calls in helping families plan dining destinations during their stays at the Disneyland Resort. She’s lost hope that one day the company will call and ask her to return to her former position.
Without many immediate options, especially as an older worker, she’s seeking to be reassigned. Parker recently interviewed for a position as a reservation agent with the Walt Disney Travel Co., one of the few jobs available where her Disney Dining experience is comparable.
But not much else would transfer alongside her skills.
If hired, Parker would become a “casual regular,” or part-time worker in Disney parlance. She wouldn’t enjoy the same rate of pay, health benefits or union representation once enjoyed while being expected to be fully available for shifts as they come.
“I’ll be starting where I did 14 years ago,” said Parker. “It’s very scary at my age to think about starting over and not having health benefits. I need to be insured because who knows what can happen. But I have to take this job if offered because unemployment insurance is ending.”
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