The Way We Work Now

I Just Lost My Job at the Happiest Place on Earth

Disney laid off thousands of workers like me while they padded executives’ paychecks

Photo: Matt Stroshane/Walt Disney World Resort/Getty Images

The Way We Work Now is a series chronicling how people’s lives and careers have fundamentally changed because of the pandemic.

Kayla, who is in her twenties, worked at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, until she was furloughed in March. She spoke with Mai Tran about being one of the 28,000 Disney employees who were laid off at the same time that executives saw their paychecks bounce back to pre-Covid-19 levels.

I started out as an intern in the Disney College Program in 2018. It’s a very difficult program to get into, but I was fortunate to get accepted on my first try. I’ve been telling my parents since I was in the fifth grade that I was going to work at Disney someday. It was a dream of mine. Once I did the Disney College Program, I ended up sticking with the company and I’ve been with them ever since. I’ve had two different roles, as a lifeguard in the college program and as a seater and general teller at ’Ohana, at the Polynesian Resort.

I found out Disney was closing while I was at my shift at ’Ohana. They told our managers first, and once our shift ended, the managers had a big meeting to let us know what was going on. March 15 was my last day of work. I applied for unemployment before Disney sent out the unemployment applications for cast members, so I was approved early on.

I stayed in my apartment for a few months before going back to my family in Texas. Around August, we got wind that something was opening back up at Disney. I hoped my restaurant would reopen, so I got Covid tested and flew back to Florida in case I needed to work, but my restaurant remained closed.

When the parks reopened, they chose who returned to work based on seniority and then location, because some park locations were still shut down. Seniority doesn’t include the years you work as an intern, so my seniority didn’t start until after my college program. There were a few servers I had worked with at ’Ohana who have been with the company since the ’90s, and they had such high seniority they were transferred to Epcot to be servers.

I stayed until mid-August before I decided to fly back to Texas. I knew I probably wasn’t going to be going back for a while because we hadn’t heard anything other than we were furloughed. I decided there was a possibility my job was coming to an end at Disney, so I got a job in Texas. Then I got the layoff notice a few days ago.

It was disrespectful when they raised the salaries of the executives back to pre-pandemic levels. It just shows their salaries are more important than our feelings and our respect as cast members.

There were only rumors at first, about non-union cast members getting laid off. Then a few days ago, the union I’m in, Local 737, had a Facebook Live where they explained the process of negotiating union agreements, and the agreement they made with Disney. They didn’t specify who or what line of business was getting laid off, but the next day, the union publicized a document on their Facebook page. If your name was in black, you were saved. If your name was in red, you were getting your notice. That’s how I and most of my coworkers found out we lost our jobs.

I was pretty hurt. I, more than most people I know, had accepted it was coming, but it was still a shot in the heart. I didn’t want it to end that way. I didn’t think March 15 was going to be my last day working for The Walt Disney Company. The layoffs were disrespectful and a show of character on how they feel about cast members. It could have been more professional than it was. It was disrespectful when they raised the salaries of the executives back to pre-pandemic levels. It just shows their salaries are more important than our feelings and our respect as cast members.

In the college program, I made $11 an hour. I got an extra $1 an hour because I was in a safety critical role, but most roles in the college program were $10 an hour. When I was part-time, before I was laid off, my salary was $13 an hour. I paid $118 a week to the company to share a three-bedroom apartment with five other girls.

I was part of Disney’s Aspire Program, which started recently. They have a list of different colleges across the country, and you can apply to those colleges and they will pay for your tuition. Since my layoff isn’t effective until New Year’s Eve of this year, I’m still getting my school paid for through them. After that, I have to pay for everything on my own. It’s a lot of money to think about throwing down, when I wasn’t planning on having to pay for my college education. I was two years into my degree and I have two and a half more years before it’s finished. I’ve been applying to scholarships, grants, FAFSA — anything that can help me pay for college.

I have nieces and nephews here in Texas, so the layoffs kind of gave me an excuse to be here while they grow up. I get to be the cool aunt who once worked at Disney World. I don’t have anything negative about the company as a whole, other than this little bitter taste in my mouth. I would never tell someone that Disney isn’t an amazing company because I’ve been a Disney fan all my life. It’s just been a big learning experience for everybody.

writer based in new york

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