When Disney World shutdown on March 15th, it left many cast members without a job to go to or fall back on, especially when the rest of Florida quickly followed suit and shut down non-essential businesses across the state. The saving grace for many of us was the promise that Disney would continue to pay us for the original two-week time period that we were supposed to be out of work. When April 1st came and went without the parks reopening, Disney announced that it would be closed until further notice and would continue to pay us until April 19th, deciding what to do about other payments at a later date. Eventually, Disney decided to furlough all non-essential workers, including over 40,000 hourly cast members, promising to enroll all employees into the Florida unemployment system in an attempt to not overwhelm the system. A week after Disney’s furlough, Universal Orlando announced it, too, would be furloughing and auto-enrolling their employees for unemployment in May, adding thousands more people to the system. It’s been almost a month since we were furloughed, and a lot has both happened and not happened since then, leaving us in limbo.
Shanghai Disneyland announced that it will reopen on May 11th, providing rigorous health and safety measures throughout the park and only allowing a set amount of guests to enter with pre-purchased tickets. Shanghai Disneyland (and most of China) has been closed since January and China has made strides to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Only after enacting measures to keep guests safe did Shanghai announce it was reopening. However, the state of Florida (and many other states across the country) have already reopened after just a little over a month of being “closed”.
Beaches, state parks, and many retail stores have reopened to some capacity even as Florida continues to have record highs of COVID-19 infections. In the midst of this, Walt Disney World announced that Disney Springs, the shopping and dining center, would partially reopen by the end of May. Some shopping and dining venues will open at a limited capacity while the parks and hotels remain closed. Safety measures, including extra cleaning, face masks, and limited contact with guests, will be implemented with the opening, along with reduced hours and parking.
Many of us still haven’t even received an initial email letting us know that we’re in the system. This has led many employees to attempt to file on their own, further adding to the confusion because they’re already in the system. Even those that have received that email and have created a profile are still waiting on an initial payment. Now we’re facing a new issue of having to fill out the “requirement to look for work”. Originally, this requirement to receive benefits was waived for anyone during this time, but apparently that time is up. Those of us that still haven’t received any payment now have to prove we’re looking for work, even though there’s no work to be found, we still technically have a job, and we’re still waiting to be paid for the past month. There have been several cries of a broken unemployment system, especially in Florida, and 40,000 cast members are the proof.
With Shanghai reopening, cast members are getting bombarded with questions from friends and family about when the American parks will reopen. To be blunt, we have no idea. Most of the time, we’re some of the last people to know anything and we usually find out from Disney blogs or our co-workers who heard from someone else. If we follow Shanghai’s timeline of a five-month closure, it could be July or August before we reopen. If we look at Disney World’s reservation date and America’s hastened reopening of businesses, it could be June 1st. If we look at Universal’s very recent furlough, it could be even longer because it doesn’t make sense to furlough all their employees for only a month or two. If we listen to “experts” it could be the end of this year or early next year! The simple truth is we don’t know. Disney Springs reopening could mean good news and a quicker opening, but Shanghai Disneyland operated their Downtown Disney at a limited capacity for months before announcing the rest of the park would open. We have no idea and at this point, I’m not sure even Bob Iger or Bob Chapek know when we’ll reopen. It’s a waiting game for all of us.
With Florida reopening without strict health measures in place, it feels like it’s just a matter of time before we’re hit with a second wave of infections. Although wearing a mask is “mandatory” throughout most of Florida, including Orange and Osceola counties (where Disney World is located), many people aren’t adhering to these guidelines and it seems like the pandemic never even happened. This lack of guidelines, coupled with the fact that many Disney World employees are over 60 years old and most of the guests are international, is leaving many people worried about going back to work. Although ideas like mandatory face masks for employees have been mentioned, it then brings up another issue—face masks are HOT. And most of the roles at Disney require employees to be outside. If we reopen during the summer, there could be a risk of employees passing out do to this. Not to mention guests who may refuse to wear them for this reason as well. Another idea being discussed is that employees over 60 or 65 years old won’t be asked to come back to work, but whether this would be voluntary or not—or if they’d continue to receive financial assistance if they don’t come back—isn’t clear.
At the end of the day, we’re all dealing with unprecedented times and issues, and it’s frustrating for everyone involved. Although Disney, along with many other companies and organizations, is doing the best it can given the circumstances, we’re all still very confused and waiting for answers. It’s been over a month that we’ve gone without a paycheck from Disney or any news from unemployment, there’s really nowhere for us to look for a new job, and although we have no clue when Disney may reopen, many of us are worried about it possibly opening too soon. Hopefully, we can look to Shanghai to lead the way on health screenings and procedures and follow their footsteps as decisions are made.