Disney, other tourism workers need $18 minimum wage

Orlando’s tourism workers, long among the lowest paid in the region’s economy, must earn at least $18 per hour to meet basic needs, a hospitality industry union argues in a report released Thursday.

The report by Unite Here Local 737 found that 69% of hospitality staff surveyed at five Orlando employers, including Walt Disney World, struggled to pay their rent or mortgage each month and 39% worried about becoming homeless.

In addition, 45% said they skipped meals and 25% went without prescribed medicine because of the costs, and 62% said they had less than $100 in savings.

The workers in the union study earn a median of $16.50 an hour, or $34,320 annually.

The report’s release comes as Local 737 is in the midst of renegotiating contracts with Disney World, which has proposed to gradually increase its starting wages to $20 an hour over the next five years, and Sodexo, the food and facilities management company at the Orange County Convention Center.

In an unsigned statement, a Disney spokesperson said the company is bargaining with the union in good faith and believes its “strong offer” to reach $20 an hour will result in meaningful wage increases.

“If our offer is accepted, our wages will continue to outpace Florida minimum wage by at least $5 an hour,” the statement read.

Jackeline Ponce has worked with Sodexo at the Convention Center for nearly 10 years and currently earns $13.60 an hour. She said one of her daughters helps her out with household bills while Ponce supports another daughter, who has lupus and cannot work because she is on dialysis, and her grandson.

“Sometimes when I go shopping for groceries, I get back from the supermarket very depressed, because I feel like my money is not going to cover all my necessities,” Ponce said at a Thursday news conference presenting the report. “They have to raise wages so we can have a dignified life.”

The union says Orlando’s theme parks and hotels can afford to make $18 an hour the minimum wage.

A report released Thursday showed Orange County hotels set record average room rates in September and generated all-time high tourism tax collections in the fiscal year. Additionally, Disney and Universal’s earnings have rivaled or surpassed pre-pandemic numbers in recent quarters.

Local 737 represents about 19,000 hospitality workers across Orlando, including 17,000 food and beverage and housekeeping staff at Walt Disney World alone. Other members include hotel and restaurant employees from Sodexo at the Orange County Convention Center, Palmas Services, Patina Restaurant Group, and Hilton hotels Buena Vista Palace and the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at the Entrance to Universal Orlando.

In an unsigned statement, a spokesperson for Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace at Disney Springs said the hotel offers competitive wages and “industry-leading benefits.”

Officials with Sodexo did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.

The union polled 2,415 hourly workers from these companies over two weeks in October to collect the data.

The union spoke with employees and used tools such as MIT’s Living Wage Calculator and the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator to arrive at the $18 figure, though it notes “most workers need to make much more than that to cover their necessities.”

“Today, Central Florida is plagued with a rent crisis and struggling families,” the report concluded. “If workers across the region’s biggest industry got an immediate, three-dollar raise, Central Florida could start to recover.”

At Thursday’s event, UCF hospitality professor Kelly Semrad said the survey’s results are unsurprising. Its claims are corroborated by university research, which has found tourism employees often experience poor quality of life due to low wages, limited benefits and poor working conditions.

“And yet, they are the very people that the industry is depending on to serve the customers so that the businesses can make money,” said Semrad, who recently campaigned for Orange County mayor but lost to incumbent Jerry Demings. “It isn’t right.”

Local legislators joined Semrad to voice their support for higher wages in the tourism industry, including State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando; State Sen. Victor Torres, D-Kissimmee; and State Rep.-elect Rita Harris, D-Orlando.

Both Eskamani and Allie Braswell, who is campaigning to represent parts of Orange and Osceola County in the Florida House, said they understand workers’ struggles personally. Eskamani said her father worked at Disney during her childhood, and Braswell said he is a former Disney employee himself and the father of a current Disney housekeeper who belongs to the union.

“If the theme parks are going to go to Wall Street and brag about their dividends … let’s make sure that it trickles down into the economy through your cast members,” Braswell said.

Several employees spoke about their struggles to afford basic necessities Thursday.

Annie Sierra earns $16.50 an hour after working five years in a quick service restaurant at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. She and her husband both work to support their two children living with them, but the couple is having trouble getting by after their rent increased three times in the past year and food costs rose by about 10% nationally from 2021.

Sierra, who has cancer, said her savings account was recently overdrawn by $8 after she bought chemotherapy treatments for herself and medical treatment for her daughter, too.

“Ends do not meet. I have to make decisions on whether I’m going to pay for my treatment this week, or if I’m going to pay for my daughter’s,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to make that decision. We need a raise; we need it now. … Where’s the dignity for the workers?”

The Service Trades Council Union, including Local 737, reached an agreement with Walt Disney World in 2018 to gradually raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour by October 2021. The agreement caused a ripple effect that led to other local hospitality employers, including Universal Orlando, raising their wages in recent years.

But the rising costs of housing, food, transportation and other necessities amid historic inflation has offset these increases, Local 737 President Jeremy Haicken told the Orlando Sentinel earlier this year.

Using just the average costs for a studio apartment, groceries, gas and car payments and insurance, the union’s report calculated a single employee working a full-time job at $15 an hour would fall $530 short of making their basic monthly expenses in Orlando. He or she would need to earn $2,766 a month but only earns $2,236 after tax, it said.

For a family of four with two working parents each earning $16.50 an hour, the shortage is even starker. The union calculated an average family would need $6,047 a month at minimum but would fall $1,533 short of meeting their expenses.

Sodexo employee Isabel Castro started crying as she discussed her financial difficulties as a single mother to three daughters.

She earns $17.25 an hour but is rarely scheduled enough hours to make ends meet, she said. The union’s proposed wage increases would include a $3 raise for workers who make similar amounts during the first year of the contract.

“It’s thanks to us, who are the faces of the company for clients, that many of these companies are able to go on and keep growing their incomes,” Castro said in Spanish.

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