ANAHEIM, Calif. – Disneyland is known as the “happiest place on Earth,” but for many employed at the theme park, that’s not translating to a high quality of life, according to a newly released report based on union-funded surveys of Disneyland Resort employees.
Some are struggling to cover basic living expenses, with more than 10 percent of employees at the Anaheim resort telling researchers they have been homeless at some point in the past two years. Of those who can afford housing, over half say they worry about being evicted from their residence.
Additionally, 68 percent reported not having reliable access to sufficient quantities of food, and many end up eating just one meal a day.
A number of workers also said they couldn’t afford healthcare or dental costs, including 36 percent who have had to give up other necessities just to pay for the monthly premiums of the resort’s health insurance plan.
On top of that, extra-long commutes and ever-changing work schedules make it difficult for employees — known in the company as “cast members” — to find a second job that could help ease their financial hardships.
Those are just some of the staggering findings from the 125-page report titled “Working for the Mouse,” which was put out by researchers at Occidental College and the Economic Roundtable, and commissioned by a coalition of unions representing workers at Disneyland Resort.
Glynndana Shevlin, who has worked for the resort for nearly 30 years, is among the workers struggling to get by. A food and beverage concierge at the Disney E-Ticket Club, Shevlin says she works to give guests “a magical experience.”
But away from the job, she can barely afford rent, food, and bills, often having to choose which one she can pay at the end of each month.
“I have been evicted twice. I work all day serving delicious food to people, yet I’m often hungry because I’m skipping meals,” Shevlin said. “At work, I’m a clean, happy person, but when I leave and get in my car, I become a sad, unhappy person who doesn’t always know where they’re going to sleep.”
Another employee, hair and makeup artist Rebekah Pederson, is homeless once again after recently living out of her car for more than three months.
“I love my job, and I take great pride in working at Disney. I’m a licensed professional whose position requires years of experience – yet my wages are so low I often have to choose between food and a roof over my head,” she said.
The vast majority of respondents stated they were being paid less than $15 an hour, and about 3/4 of the approximately 5,000 surveyed said they run out of money by the end of month, according to the study.
The report suggests raising the wage floor to $20 an hour, noting that the average hourly wage in real dollars dropped 15 percent since 2000, from $15.80 to $13.36.
Disney officials, however, dispute the findings as “deliberately distorted,” calling them an “inaccurate and unscientific survey … paid for by politically motivated labor unions,” according to a statement from spokeswoman Suzi Brown.
The report does “not reflect how the overwhelming majority of our 30,000 cast members feel about the company,” she said.
Brown told the Orange County Register that the average wage last year for full-time, hourly workers was about $37,000, including any tips earned.
“While we recognize that socioeconomic challenges exist for many people living in Southern California, we take pride in our employment experience,” she said in the statement.
In fact, economic hardships aside, most of the employees — about 80 percent — expressed satisfaction with the work itself, saying they are “proud” of what they do at the resort, according to the survey.
The bleak picture of homelessness and food insecurity, along with stories of employees struggling to get by, serves in stark contrast to the resort’s prosperity. As real wages steadily declined over the past decade, overall revenue for Disneyland increased dramatically during the same period, according to the report.
In 2016, Disneyland generated more than $3 billion in revenue for the Walt Disney Company, up from $1.7 billion a decade earlier, the report found.
The theme parks have become more expensive to visit in recent years, with ticket and annual passport prices for Disneyland and Disney California Adventure increasing virtually every year — most recently this month.
Still, that hasn’t seemed to hurt attendance, which grew from 20.6 million in 2006 to 27.2 million in 2016.
“As Disneyland profits and prices hit record highs, Disneyland employees are falling farther behind,” said Peter Dreier, a professor of policy at Occidental College who co-wrote the report. “Disneyland wages aren’t keeping up with rising rents in Southern California. Our survey found that homelessness and housing instability are so widespread that they have become a normal part of employees’ lives at the park.”
The survey, which was conducted this past October, was commissioned by eleven different unions representing various resort workers, including hair stylists, costumes, food service workers, candy makers, security guards, custodians, hotel workers, retail workers, ticket takers, musicians, puppeteers, singers and dancers.
A town hall meeting will be held to discuss the findings at the Sheraton Park Hotel in Anaheim on Wednesday.