Disney World Employees Fear Major Delays From Florida's Unemployment System

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Walt Disney World

"The system was designed to fail even in the best of times, and now hundreds of thousands of workers are paying the price," said Jeremy Haicken, president of Disney World union Local 737.

It is now a matter of hurry up and wait for tens of thousands of Walt Disney World workers who will not receive another paycheck for the foreseeable future as furloughs began Sunday due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

The Walt Disney Company is in the midst of working with Florida to auto-enroll employees into the unemployment benefit system. The move is seen by some as a double-edged sword in that it is a helpful first step to hopefully avoid crashing the state's system — but now the situation is out of employees' hands. And there is no telling when they will hear from the state to continue the process for actually filing a claim.

The situation is dire, Jeremy Haicken, president of UNITE HERE Local 737, the union which represents workers in Walt Disney World Food & Beverage and Housekeeping, told The Hollywood Reporter

"Florida is on the verge of a humanitarian disaster," said Haicken. "The system was designed to fail even in the best of times, and now hundreds of thousands of workers are paying the price. What are workers going to do when their children are starving — ask them to wait seven weeks for [Gov. Ron] DeSantis to send them a check?" 

The Walt Disney World Resort employs some 77,000 workers, of which about 43,000 are members of a union. A major perk for members: They are able to keep their medical, dental and life insurance benefits for the length of the furlough period, or up to a year. 

On the other side of the country, the situation is much the same. However, unlike Florida, California is not working with Disney to auto-enroll Disneyland employees, who are also now contributing a large number of claims to the state's unemployment. 

Workers United Local 50 president Christopher Duarte on Monday told THR that most of the concerns his office is receiving now are about unemployment steps. "Most of the questions come from a base concern that no one wants to get denied," he said. As with Disney World, Disneyland union members will keep their benefits while the park is closed, or up to one year. 

Disneyland and Disney World closed their doors in mid-March due to the virus. Around the time the company announced massive furloughs, it disclosed that Bob Iger, executive chairman of Disney, would forgo his salary, while newly named CEO Bob Chapek would take a salary cut. Other executives are also taking salary cuts. 

Disney shares fell Monday in trading after the UBS investment banking company downgraded the stock, noting in part the uncertainty of the parks' future.

"We believe Parks' profitability will be impaired for a longer period of time given the lingering effects of the outbreak and now assume an opening date of Jan. 1 [2021] as our base case," according to the UBS forecast. "We believe the lingering effects of the COVID-19 outbreak will be felt for a number of years and the Parks segment is unlikely to regain previous thresholds for profitability until after a vaccine is widely available."

The Monday report also forecast that it may take until 2022 for Disney to see its North American park annual attendance return to the highest levels, which it reached in 2018 and 2019 with 83 million visitors in its domestic venues. 

On Friday, Iger was among those announced as members of a California task force aimed at reviving California's economy, which is now officially entering an recession. That same day, the exec spoke of the obstacles and realities that come with reopening the economy. 

"Clearly, making people feel safe from getting the virus is the biggest obstacle, and it's clearly complicated," Iger told ABC7 Los Angeles (Disney is the station's parent company). "It's not just about — as far as we know — social distancing. It's about taking a number of steps, implementing a number of procedures to make sure that people feel safe."

The exec previously floated that Disney would conduct temperature checks before guests enter the parks once the locations are reopened.  

On Friday, Iger noted increased hygiene at businesses — not just Disney properties — will be paramount when the situation begins to return to normal, while adding "it's likely that we're going to need some mass testing, at scale, and some form of contact tracing, as well, so that we can identify people who have been exposed or people who have had the virus and may be of harm to others."