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'I can't get any help': Disney World staff go weeks without unemployment benefits

The Guardian logo The Guardian 5/22/2020 Michael Sainato
The entrance to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World on March 16, 2020, the first day of closure in responsed to the coronavirus pandemic. © Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images The entrance to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World on March 16, 2020, the first day of closure in responsed to the coronavirus pandemic.

Workers at Disney World in Orlando, the largest single-site employer in the US, with around 77,000 employees, are struggling to obtain unemployment benefits weeks after being furloughed by the coronavirus shutdowns.

Florida has the worst unemployment system in the U.S. based on how few people receive benefits, and a low payout maximum of $275 per week, according to a study conducted by the job market website Zippia.

The giant theme park has been closed since March 16 and a reopening date has not yet been set, leaving staff uncertain over how long they will be out of work. Workers are concerned that even after Disney reopen, it remains unclear whether tourism to the most visited location in the U.S. will rebound enough for all staff to be recalled.

Related: Disney takes $1.4bn hit as parks shuttered and production halted

About 70,000 Disney World theme park and hotel workers in Florida were furloughed in the beginning of April. As part of an agreement with Unite Here, Disney auto-enrolled furloughed Disney World employees into the Florida unemployment system on 18 March, but many workers have yet to receive any benefits.

Dan Rey, a server at Disney for 25 years, has helped several co-workers to complete online forms to receive their unemployment benefits, but hasn’t yet received his own.

After not receiving a pin to start accessing his benefits, Rey called the helpline, which either: took hours to connect with a representative; told him the system was down; crashed during the call; or directed him to complete work history and certification forms, which he’s done repeatedly – in addition to constant calls to the helpline and sending emails requesting assistance.

“Whatever glitches happening to my application, I can’t get anybody on the phone or email to respond to help,” said Rey, who has depleted his savings and is struggling to afford to pay his bills.

Related video: Disney Springs partially reopens in Florida (provided by CBS News)


According to an analysis conducted by One Fair Wage, about 44% of the 36.5 million Americans who have filed for unemployment benefits either had their claims denied or are still waiting for them to be processed. Florida has one of the lowest percentages of unemployment claims receiving benefits in the US, at 32%.

Saru Jayaraman, the president of One Fair Wage, said: “Florida has one of the lowest rates in the country of processing unemployment insurance applications, as less than one-third of all applicants have received relief. This is due to the fact that the state unemployment insurance system has been intentionally underfunded and under-resourced based on the rightwing ideology that denying workers benefits when they are out of work will force them to accept very low-wage jobs.”

The Florida department of economic opportunity deferred comment to its dashboard of cases, which states that around 985,000 claims have been paid out, while over 1.7m unique claims have been verified as submitted, with over 2 million total claims filed since March 15.

Carmen Marrero, a Disney worker for seven years in currency operations, spends every day attempting to find out what’s wrong with her claim, but receives little to no information from the agency website and representatives.

“I have to try several times a day to get somebody on the phone, and when I finally do, either their system is down or they can’t help me,” said Marrero.

Sharme Neal, a server for nearly 17 years at Disney, has experienced similar issues. When she first tried to complete her application, the state website kept crashing. She tried the mobile site, continued to try to complete her information, and was told by the site it was submitted.

Weeks went by and she never received benefits.

“I’ve been checking every day,” said Neal. “I’m not going out spending any money. I have to watch everything I spend. I’m not putting any money into the economy.”

When she was finally able to get in touch with a call representative for the agency, she was told to contact Disney human resources to have them release her furlough information to the agency. HR had told her the information was already electronically submitted, and the unemployment agency would have to contact Disney to confirm she was furloughed.

Crystal Rosas, 26, has worked at Disney’s Hollywood Attractions as a ride attendant with her husband, Esteban, for about a year. She has been able to start receiving unemployment benefits, but her husband has yet to receive any. They spend hours each day waiting to speak with representatives on the helpline to try to figure out why his application has not been accepted and paid out.

“It’s pathetic we’re fighting for our own money,” said Rosas. “We have to pay rent, utilities and our car.”

A Disney spokesperson cited a press release on plans to begin reopening retail stores and restaurants at Disney Springs on May 20 as the theme parks remain closed. They did not comment on workers’ unemployment issues or confirm the number of workers who have been furloughed.


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