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labor Union Reps Call Out Disney’s ‘Trumpian’ Treatment of Theme Park Workers

Disneyland in Anaheim, California, is packed with visitors. But the company refuses to provide COVID-19 testing to its employees.

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PANDEMIC PARK

Kent Phillips/Walt Disney World Resort via Getty Images

Disneyland in Anaheim, California, is packed with visitors. But the company refuses to provide COVID-19 testing to its employees.

The parking lot of the Downtown Disney District, an outdoor shopping and dining complex south of Disneyland’s Paradise Pier Hotel and north of a coronavirus-testing supersite, opens weekday mornings at 9:45 a.m. By 9:30 a.m. Thursday, the line of cars awaiting entry spanned two blocks. “Welcome back,” a masked cast member told drivers at the gate. The sign beside her read: “By visiting the Disneyland Resort, you voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19.” 

To get inside the District, visitors must shuffle from the parking lot down a tree-lined path, notched with six-foot markers and reminders to wear masks. The street ends at a four-stage security checkpoint, as complex as an airport—if TSA workers wore costumes—including a temperature check station, a bomb-sniffing dog, a bag search vestibule, and metal detectors.

Disney’s Anaheim theme parks—Disneyland and California Adventure—were slated for a July 17 return, only to find themselves in hot water with the state and their own employees. At the time of the announcement, Governor Newsom had not released amusement park safety guidelines, and Disney had not committed to daily testing for its cast members. They postponed the reopening later that week, but brought back the Disney Downtown District, leaving the vast majority of its 30,000 furloughed workers in limbo, while a select crew of veteran cast members returned to their District jobs, uncertain about their safety.

When Disney first announced plans to reopen, workers were incensed. Orange County, which resisted COVID-19 protocols well into the spring, was undergoing a surge in positive cases. Ines Guzman, a five-year housekeeper who has been furloughed since March 13, wants to go back to work. But she lives with her elderly mother and two sets of twins, all of whom have asthma, and can’t risk bringing something home to them. “I was frustrated,” Guzman said. “How are they going to open if the pandemic is still going on? It needs to be safe for us to come back. It really does.” 

For Guzman, the solution is simple: daily testing. Disney has continued to pay for its employees’ health insurance during the pandemic, but leaves testing—which can often involve weeks-long waits for results, or rapid-test fees uncovered by insurance—up to its employees. A coalition of a dozen unions representing 17,000 Disneyland cast members agreed with Guzman. “Although Disney has provided some information and accommodated some of our concerns, such as the need for the company to take temperatures of all cast members as they enter the worksite, there are numerous questions about safety which Disney has not yet answered,” the unions wrote in a June letter to Gov. Newsom, “including any serious discussion of ‘testing’—which has been the cornerstone of plans for other areas of the entertainment industry reopening.” 

Disney’s response, according to Unite Here Local 11 Director Austin Lynch, was “absurd and Trumpian”—casting doubt on the efficacy of regular testing. “The existing COVID-19 testing is not viable as a screening tool and not recommended by the FDA to be used in this way,” Disney Labor Relations Director Bill Pace wrote in a response. “Given the current range of false negatives, as high as 38 percent in the most infectious period of COVID-19, testing Cast Members can give a false sense of security.” 

The statement runs counter to the testing regime implemented in the NBA Bubble at Disney World in Orlando, where players and select staff are treated to daily COVID-19 tests to catch and contain possible outbreaks—a system that has been widely hailed as effective. A Disney spokesperson declined to comment on the discrepancy, but pointed to the precautions the park has put in place. “Our cast are Disney fans,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement, “and we’ve adopted new protocols for face coverings, health screenings, cleaning and disinfecting, training, and more as they return to the magic.”

A worker lets visitors into the Downtown Disney District on July 9, 2020, in Anaheim, California. 

Derek Lee/Getty

At least one District cast member has tested positive for COVID-19 since it reopened, according to Andrea Zinder, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324, which represents the Downtown Disney employees. The worker began self-isolating after receiving their result on July 24. As part of their reopening agreements, Disney has granted its employees an additional two weeks of paid leave, though COVID-19 symptoms can last well longer. What will happen if the worker tests positive after two weeks? “They’ll have to file for disability,” Zinder said.

None of the District’s cast members was permitted to speak to press about the changes to their workplace, but a frequent guest noticed one difference. “It’s funky because everyone’s saying, ‘Welcome back,’” said Noni Gonzalez, an 18-year-old in red mouse ears and a polka dot dress to match. A collector of Disney memorabilia with over 20 pairs of ears and a dozen spirit jerseys, Gonzalez had come to the park for a third time during the pandemic for Disney’s 65th Anniversary merch drop. “That’s never happened before. They’ve never said ‘Welcome back.’ They usually say ‘Welcome Princess’ or something like that.”