Disney labor unions ask theme park to pay lost wages after Hurricane Irma

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PHOTO VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Disney labor unions are asking the Orlando theme park to pay 38,000 union workers for the shifts lost due to park closure during Hurricane Irma.

The Service Trades Council Unions says thousands of workers across Walt Disney World's parks lost wages when Disney closed for two days because of Irma on Sept. 9 and Sept. 10. The theme park reopened on Tuesday.

The council, which is made up of six local unions representing Disney housekeepers, food workers, entertainment stagehands and other cast members, says Disney informed them it was paying lost wages to thousands of non-unionized workers, including students in Disney's college program, seasonal employees and clerical employees – but not to unionized full-time and part-time cast members.

Orlando Weekly reached out to Disney representatives for a comment but did not receive an immediate response. The six unions will be holding a press conference in front of the entrance to Disney near State Road 535 and Hotel Plaza Boulevard at 5 p.m. Thursday to demand lost wages.

Jeremy Haicken, president of Unite Here Local 737, says many of the workers who won't be paid already earn low wages. Orange County is still recovering from the devastation caused in Florida by Irma, and Haicken says numerous cast members are still displaced after evacuating and recovering from the damage at home. Some have lost refrigerators full of groceries or are staying in hotels as they wait for the power and air conditioning to come back on. If Disney paid the lost wages, it would go toward helping its own workers recover what they lost in the storm, he says.

Haicken says under the current policy, a student in the college program who works as a ride operator or a food worker will get paid, while a fellow unionized employee working the same job will be out of luck.

"The company may say that this is a union contract issue and that the contract doesn't require them to pay when time is missed because of a hurricane, but this is a humanitarian issue," he says. "It's just the right thing to do for Disney to pay."

Disney did offer to let unionized workers use their paid time off if they have any left or borrow future paid time off, which Haicken says is not required in the contract, but the union leader adds that people shouldn't have to choose between being able to pay their bills now or have time off in the future.

Earlier this week, Disney announced it was committing $2.5 million in aid to those affected by Hurricane Irma. The company also says it donated meals and bedding, provided storage for supplies and utility vehicles and made rooms available for first responders during the storm.

"As millions of people now face the daunting challenge of putting their lives and communities back together in the wake of these historic hurricanes, they need our help," Disney CEO Bob Iger said in a statement.

Haicken says Disney could show that same compassion to its workers.

"That’s great that Disney can make that donation to the community at-large, but we’re talking about the hardworking men and women who dedicate themselves to the company and getting them help in a time of need," he says.

The Service Trades Council Unions and Disney have been in talks since August to negotiate wages. The labor unions proposed increasing wages from $10 to $15 for workers who've been with the company for at least three years and paying tipped workers a base salary of $8.10, which is Florida's minimum wage. Disney, on the other hand, has proposed a 2.5 percent salary increase for workers. The Orlando Sentinel reports Disney wanted to call in a federal independent mediator because of the "union’s limited availability and the significant delta between our wage proposals."

UPDATE: Disney labor union leaders said Thursday that Walt Disney World agreed to pay unionized workers the wages lost by the park’s closure during Hurricane Irma.

"Ten minutes ago, a representative of Disney called the heads of each union to report that they had decided to pay all cast members for their lost shifts," said Eric Clinton, president of Unite Here Local 362, to a cheering crowd in front of a Disney entrance. "It clearly shows that Disney and the unions can work together to resolve difficult issues in the workplace."

Clinton said both parties go back to the bargaining table next Tuesday to discuss wage increases.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with Jeremy Haicken's current name.

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