If you work for Walt Disney World or any other Orlando theme park (or plan to), this article is for you. Recently a few headlines regarding a proposed wage increase for Walt Disney World employees by the six unions representing the majority of the workforce caught my attention. They are trying to get Walt Disney World leaders to agree to a wage increase that would equal $15-an-hour to start for all employees. Not only would this be huge for Disney workers, such an increase would have a ripple effect for all other employers in Central Florida, especially theme parks that would have to try and compete with those hourly wages.
Before we dive in, for those of who are unfamiliar, let me break down the current situation of how wages are determined for Walt Disney World employees. Florida is a right-to-work state. Meaning that even if the company you work for is unionized, you don’t have to join in order to take the job. However, if your company is unionized, the company (in this case Walt Disney World) and the union set up contracts every few years that is legally binding on how the company operates in certain aspects.
That contract lays out policies and procedures from anything regarding how many times an employee can call in before being terminated, what the transfer policy is, what holidays you get paid extra for working and of course, wages. Walt Disney World is the only theme park operator in Florida to be unionized. This doesn’t mean that Sea World, Universal and other theme park operators don’t have their own employee policy manual. They do. The difference is, they get to decide what those policies are without a union pushing for certain benefits like wage increases, healthcare coverage, etc. Plus, they have a little more wiggle room when it comes to those wage increases, terminating employees and even promotions.
The plusses and minuses of having a union represent theme park employees is a discussion I’ve had with dozens of workers in Orlando for decades now. That’s a different conversation for a different time. For now, you need to understand this framework for how Disney, in particular, handles wage increases. Additionally, none of this is a mystery. Walt Disney World unions post their contracts publicly so anyone can read them. Go ahead and take a look for yourself if you are so inclined.
Recently, the unions representing Walt Disney World have had very public rallies to attract media attention. Their goal is to change the current starting wage for Walt Disney World employees to $15-an-hour. Currently, that starting wage is $10-an-hour. This comes from a contract that was negotiated that started in September 2014 and expires in September 2019. According to a side letter in the contract, wage negotiations were set to be renegotiated in September 2017, so here we are.
A lot of this comes on the heels of wage increases in cities like Seattle which has forced companies to start their employees at $15-an-hour. In addition, there are movements in other cities and within certain industries (such as fast food) to raise their minimum to $15-an-hour. Since it has become a hot topic amongst other industries in the United States, the Walt Disney World unions are looking to capitalize on that to put pressure on Disney to raise wages for their employees.
Where this gets interesting is in 2014, when the last union contract was ratified at Walt Disney World, union officials recommended a yes vote to the wages employees are currently receiving. No secret when the contract ended and the wage increases were spelled out until September 2017. Let’s make this clear that the current wage situation that most frontline employees are facing is due to a yes vote that they voted on, which was the recommendation of union leadership. To make a jump to $15 is an enormous leap that would be an extremely expensive move for the company. More on that later.
The fact that Walt Disney World is actually entertaining the idea is saying something. The other side is even more interesting as a starting wage of $15 an hour is a huge jump compared to the current offering. I read quite often online from both employees of Walt Disney World and fans all the time: Disney makes so much money, surely they can afford to pay their employees a decent wage!
No question, Disney parks rake in billions in profits every year. On the other hand, to assume that the money Disney makes can go straight to wage increases is no easy task. Part of the reason why union contracts are so important to a company that employs over 65,000 people is that you can make five-year budget plans based on how much money your employees will be making. To be clear, this is not a mom and pop general store where they can decide to give their employees a raise can be done easily. We are talking about over 36,000 people who would get this raise. Let’s do some math.
36,000 employees a week working an average of 32 hours (a mixture of full time and part time) is 1,152,000 labor hours a week. This times 52-weeks-a-year is 59,904,000 labor hours. To be clear, that’s nearly $60 million a year just to increase the wage by $1-an-hour. The union is asking for much more than that. Not to mention, that $60 million is extremely conservative. During holiday weeks, theme parks often require overtime due to extended hours, plus holiday bonus pay, and so on.
Then you have the ripple effect. Those that are not covered by the union contract agreement should also have their pay increased as well. These include college program, office and technical workers and others who are not under a collective bargaining agreement. As a rule of thumb, often times pay increases for frontline hourly positions to reflect what the higher-ups make. In other words, why go for a management position if your pay doesn’t increase or stay the same?
Finally, let’s talk about the state of Florida and particularly Orlando’s wage problem. Scott Maxwell of the Orlando Sentinel has done an amazing job covering this topic for years. In a recent column, Maxwell noted that compared to major cities Orlando ranked 50 (out of 50) in median wages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average job in Orlando pays $853 a week, compared to the national average of $1029 a week.
If you’re upset about the wage situation in Central Florida? Talk to Florida Governor Rick Scott. In May 2016, he put out an ad campaign in California to lure businesses to set up shop in Florida. His quote, “Why pay your lowest-rung employees $15-an-hour? Come to Florida, where the minimum wage is only $8.05 and the sun shines just as bright” ran on radio stations across the state of California.
He’s right. Big business is often attracted to Florida because the minimum wage is so low and the tax code is not nearly as stringent. Whether it is the right thing for an employer to do? That’s a different story entirely. I could tell you countless stories of how many theme park employees in Orlando I’ve seen living out of their cars, on welfare and who can’t afford the cafeteria food at work.
As Disney and the Union move forward, it’s important to know what you are up against. As we have stated many times here at Theme Park University, frontline employees are the backbone of any theme park. We wish you all the best. What are your thoughts? Remember, if you want to comment on this article on social media, feel free to use the hashtag “IReadTheEntireArticle”.
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Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated that wages for Walt Disney World employees were slated through 2019. Thanks to a reader’s investigation, a side letter was found stating wages would be renegotiated in September 2017. Our apologies for the error.