Furloughed Disney Workers “Can’t Wait” For Help, But Florida’s Unemployment System Is Broken

Hamilton Nolan April 15, 2020

Furloughed Disney workers are now being forced to battle against Florida’s dysfunctional unemployment system. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

At the end of this week, 43,000 union­ized Walt Dis­ney World employ­ees will be fur­loughed, an unprece­dent­ed blow to fam­i­lies through­out the entire cen­tral Flori­da region. On top of the sud­den loss of income, work­ers say that they face an even more imme­di­ate threat: the bro­ken Flori­da unem­ploy­ment system.

Dis­ney is not just one of Florida’s most impor­tant employ­ers — it rep­re­sents a rare island of union pow­er in a state where less than 7% of work­ers are union mem­bers. A coali­tion of six unions called the Ser­vice Trades Union Coun­cil that rep­re­sents near­ly 40,000 Dis­ney work­ers nego­ti­at­ed an agree­ment with the com­pa­ny this week that guar­an­tees employ­ees will keep their ben­e­fits while they are fur­loughed, includ­ing health insur­ance. They’re also guar­an­teed the right to go back to their old jobs, with the same wages and senior­i­ty, when the theme parks final­ly reopen. Most of the employ­ees stopped work­ing in mid-March, but secured five weeks of pay. After April 19, how­ev­er, they are on their own. 

That’s the good news. The bad news is that these new­ly fur­loughed work­ers are now being forced to apply for unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits in Flori­da all at once — a vir­tu­al impos­si­bil­i­ty, since the state’s unem­ploy­ment sys­tem is already over­whelmed, dys­func­tion­al, and inca­pable of deliv­er­ing the ben­e­fits that are owed to every­one who has found them­selves new­ly with­out a job in recent weeks. 

Nobody can do any­thing. Nobody can apply. The sys­tem is crashed,” said Wes­ny Theophin, a Unite Here mem­ber who has been a Dis­ney food and bev­er­age work­er for five years. His cowork­ers, know­ing he is a union activist, keep call­ing me, all after­noon and all night, ask­ing me what they’re sup­posed to do.” 

There are no easy answers. Fresh off nego­ti­at­ing the fur­lough agree­ment with Dis­ney, Unite Here — a union that has said that 98% of its mem­bers nation­al­ly are now out of work — now finds itself forced to run a week-long protest cam­paign in cen­tral Flori­da in an attempt to push the state gov­ern­ment to make the unem­ploy­ment sys­tem func­tion­al. Eric Clin­ton, the pres­i­dent of Unite Here Local 362, which cov­ers a por­tion of the work­ers at Dis­ney, said that Can you actu­al­ly col­lect?” is the ques­tion on everyone’s minds. Many of our mem­bers live pay­check to pay­check. How do they make ends meet? There’s going to be a gap of time here that is very con­cern­ing to me.” 

Estafa­nia Vil­ladiego has worked as a Dis­ney attrac­tion employ­ee for the past two years. She earns about $13 an hour. She lives with her daugh­ter and her hus­band, a plumber who is still work­ing. She is con­cerned about the risk of him com­ing in con­tact with coro­n­avirus, and prais­es the union for get­ting the com­pa­ny to main­tain health ben­e­fits. But she speaks in stark terms about the dan­ger­ous impli­ca­tions of tens of thou­sands of her cowork­ers flood­ing into the state unem­ploy­ment sys­tem at the same time, and find­ing that none of them can get through. Her fam­i­ly, she says, can­not sur­vive on just one income — and many of her cowork­ers have it even worse, either liv­ing alone or sup­port­ing fam­i­lies by themselves. 

It’s a very del­i­cate sit­u­a­tion for thou­sands of peo­ple in cen­tral Flori­da,” she said. We need to fix the sys­tem right now. Peo­ple need the help right away. We need it now, we can’t wait. It’s a lie that reg­u­lar work­ing peo­ple have a lot of sav­ings. We need it now.” 

Flori­da Gov. Ron Desan­tis, fac­ing a state fill­ing up with unem­ployed peo­ple unable to access their ben­e­fit pay­ments, sug­gest­ed Tues­day that per­haps the state could direct­ly enter the fur­loughed Dis­ney employ­ees into the sys­tem in a process of auto-enroll­ment. Unite Here respond­ed that this was an idea they had sug­gest­ed weeks ago, when they first start­ed bar­gain­ing, only to see their alarm bells” dis­re­gard­ed until now. 

Eric Clin­ton says, in fact, that oth­er mem­bers of his union have been laid off for near­ly a month and have still not received their unem­ploy­ment checks. Unite Here knew that this would be an issue for Dis­ney work­ers. But when they sug­gest­ed the com­pa­ny use its polit­i­cal clout with the state gov­ern­ment to seek direct access to the unem­ploy­ment sys­tem for its fur­loughed employ­ees, the union was rebuffed. 

Any time they want to do some­thing that helps them,” they can influ­ence the governor’s office, Clin­ton said. But not this.” 

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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