With Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando set to begin its phased reopening next month, thousands of furloughed Disney employees are preparing to head back to work. Among those returning to jobs are many members of Unite Here Local 362, a central Florida union representing approximately 9,000 hospitality workers, including about 8,000 Disney cast members. Hotels editor Christina Jelski spoke with Unite Here Local 362 president Eric Clinton about the state's unemployment system, health and safety protections for hospitality employees and racial inequality.
Q: Can you talk about some of the challenges Local 362 members have faced when it comes to furloughs and unemployment?
A: Of the 9,000 people we represent, at one point, when Disney furloughed workers on April 19, we only had around 150 or so people working. Under normal circumstances, once someone is out of work, they can file for unemployment and receive benefits, but the system in Florida is very poorly designed. Starting in mid-March, thousands of workers lost their jobs and filed for unemployment, and the system just couldn't keep up. We did a text poll of [around 4,500 of our members], and as of May 24, only 16% said they had received all of their benefits. Around 53% said they received some, and 31% still hadn't received anything.
Q: What have been some of Local 362's top concerns when it comes to returning to work, particularly when it comes to returning to jobs with Disney?
A: One of the most important things for us was making sure Disney provided free family medical insurance for full-time furloughed employees for at least one year. There are parts of Disney that aren't going to be reopening for some time, and having that insurance is very important. Disney agreed to that. And in the same agreement, we got the company to promise permanent recall rights. So that guarantees everybody who had a job prior to the closure and furloughs a job when one becomes available, before the company goes out and hires anybody else. You don't lose any rate of pay or lose your seniority. You can come back as though nothing ever happened.
Q: What have been some of the union's concerns surrounding Covid-19 and ensuring employee health and safety?
A: In terms of employee health, we got Disney to agree to a lot of measures that are very positive. Anybody who needs a thermometer to be able to do a self-assessment each day at home can request and receive one. If you don't feel well or have symptoms, you can call into work with no attendance policy ramifications. They're encouraging people to stay home if sick. If you get the virus, you will be asked to stay at home for 14 days, and you will be paid for all lost shifts that you were scheduled to work during that time. And that's for both full-time and part-time workers. And then in terms of safety, they've said masks are going to be required for guests and employees, there will be guest temperature checks, they're going to do enhanced cleanings, have social distancing in place. Where they can't do social distancing, they'll put up physical barriers. They're going to encourage cashless transactions. Disney deserves a lot of credit, and I think you're actually going to be much safer at Disney World than you are at your local grocery store.
Q: As the U.S. also grapples with widespread civil unrest and anger over racial inequality, has this emerged as a flashpoint for Local 362, as well?
A: Incidents like those involving George Floyd or Trayvon Martin -- which happened right here in our backyard in Sanford -- are not ones that we should tolerate as working people. And the racial injustice that our president has been fanning the flames of over the last several days is absolutely outrageous, and I think people need to protest peacefully. The union movement comes from a long tradition of nonviolent demonstration. Our union is predominantly women and predominantly people of color. The majority of our board members are nonwhite. So, yes, it is certainly top of mind for us.