Jonathan Pulliam has been working at Disney World since 2018, dressing up as everything from beloved Disney cartoon characters to Star Wars villains. And while he loves his job, he says he can’t afford it any longer.
“Me loving it, that’s not enough to pay the bills,” he said about his $15.85-an-hour salary that usually earns him about $550 a week. With rent for a typical apartment in the Orlando area costing about $1,800 per month according to Realtor.com, he says he couldn’t get by if he wasn’t living with his sister.
“I’d probably be living in my car. I know several who are living in cars because they can’t afford to pay rent,” said the Kansas native, who remembers annual childhood trips to Disney World with his family. “It’s a tourist area. Everything’s expensive.”
On Thursday and Friday, about 32,000 Disney employees will be voting on a contract offer from management. These workers do everything from performing as characters to working in restaurants and shops, driving buses, trams and monorails as well as working at front desks and performing housekeeping duties at hotels.
Those working under this contract, all of them full-time employees, represent more than 40% of all workers at Disney World. Currently, the park has 75,000 cast members, as the company refers to its employees, including full-time and part-time, hourly and salaried staff. It is comparable to Disney World’s pre-pandemic employment levels.
The company’s five-year offer would raise salaries for cast members by a minimum of $1 an hour per year, taking most workers to at least $20 an hour by 2026. That would be $5 an hour more than the Florida minimum wage, which is in the process of being increased from the current $11 an hour to $15 an hour by 2026. The company said 46% of cast members will get more than a $1-an-hour raise in the contract’s first year.
This is a “very strong offer” with guaranteed raises each year of the five-year agreement, said Andrea Finger, a Disney spokesperson. She said the majority of employees will see raises totaling 33% to 46% during the life of the contract.
The company’s offer would pay housekeepers and bus drivers at least $20 an hour immediately and culinary staff would start at $20 to $25 per hour, depending on their role.
There will also be retroactive pay increases dating back to October 1, when the previous contract expired, providing lump-sum pre-tax payments of about $700 to full-time workers.
But union leadership is urging members to vote no. The unions say Disney presented this as its best offer and that is why it’s going to membership for a vote – not because there is a tentative agreement, which is the point at which an offer normally goes to rank-and-file union members for a vote.
And this time around, all indications are that the company’s offer will be rejected.
The six union locals working under the current contract want an immediate $3 an hour raise, or a 20% raise, for what it says is 75% of the members currently making $15 an hour, plus an additional $1 an hour raise every year after that.
“The unions have been clear from our very first bargaining session that a dollar in the first year is not enough,” said Matt Hollis, president of the Service Trades Council Union, the collection of six union locals that are negotiating with Disney management. “A dollar does not afford Disney workers with the ability to keep up with the skyrocketing rent increases. And a dollar does not afford Disney workers with the ability to continue to purchase basic necessities, such as food, gas and utilities.”
Pulliam, the character performer who says he can’t afford a dollar-an-hour raise, lives about an hour’s drive from the theme park, and says he’ll be voting no because he can’t get by with the wages being offered.
“I’m filling my car three times a week,” he said. “I would love to ask these execs if they could get by on $1 an hour more. It’s disheartening. They don’t have to decide [whether]...to eat or get gas.”
Pulliam said he’s angered by recent news reports about fired former Disney executives who left the company with huge pay packages, such as ex-Disney CEO Bob Chapek, who received a $20 million severance package when he was fired by the board in November, or Geoff Morrell, who received $10.3 million for his three months overseeing corporate and public affairs, or more than $100,000 a day.
Negotiations on a new union contract have been ongoing since August. Despite widespread expectations that unions’ rank-and-file will reject this offer, no strike deadline or strike authorization vote has been scheduled.
Union leadership said they hope that Disney will return to the table with a better offer once union members reject this one. Disney doesn’t rule out further negotiations, saying that after no votes on contracts there typically are additional rounds of talks.
“While Disney insists at the bargaining table that this is the best offer, we know Disney can do better, and Disney knows they must do better,” said Hollis. He said the workers who would get more than a $1 an hour pay increase are in jobs where Disney is having trouble filling openings and retaining workers.
Unions have represented workers at Disney World since soon after the park’s 1971 opening, but employees have never gone on strike. Disney reported that its parks, experiences and products unit, which includes Disney World and other park locations worldwide, had revenue of $7.4 billion and operating income of $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2022, which ran through October 1. (The first six months of that fiscal year were affected by surging Covid cases.)
Revenue was up 36% and profits more than doubled from the previous fiscal year. And both revenue and operating profits are above what the company posted in fiscal year 2019, before the pandemic, with a 12% rise in revenue and a 10% gain in earnings.
CNN’s Anna Bahney contributed to this report.