THE BLOG
06/24/2014 02:23 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2014

Behind the Disney Magic, Reality Bits Back for Those Who Work There

Walt Disney World is without a doubt an amazing enterprise. In creating a place built on fantasy, nostalgia and imagination, it is truly Florida's jewel. One of the largest employers in Florida, Disney is responsible for the influx of millions of tourists to our state and billions in revenue. Even our small attempts at state-wide mass transit gravitate toward having Orlando as its main focal point, and the Disney park is the reason.

Disney truly wants the public to believe in fantasy, and almost everything it does works on maintaining that facade.

But, sadly, magic is not real and the Magic Kingdom is a facade. That is temporarily overlooked by the millions who come and spend $100 per person per day in the parks or stay in Disney resorts. The adults who lay down their hard-earned dollars know that magic is not real, but they are OK with setting aside reality and enjoying their stay.

For the most part, Disney World does not disappoint its patrons. The high level of customer service and satisfaction is almost unmatched.

But for those who work for the Mouse, reality bites back.

The business culture of the Disney Corp. is to maximize customer satisfaction while maximizing profits. The patrons are happy, the stockholders and upper management are happy. Most of the employees, the ones you see working the park with a constant smile on their face, truly enjoy working there. They may be paid to smile, but many know that the level of micromanagement and corporate culture makes their job satisfaction a facade as well.

Let's start with the pay scale. A vast majority of park workers are working for slightly above minimum wage. The union that represents over 20,000 of them, the Service Trades Council Union (STCU), has been working hard to get Disney to raise its minimum wage from $8.03, which was negotiated in 2010 to $10 by July 2016.

But before all the birds and mice come out to sing with the employees, let's look at what is really happening.

First, we need to remember that growth of the minimum wage has fallen so far below the rate of inflation that the current wage of $8.03 is below the equivalent minimum wage of 1964, which was $1.25, or $9.34 in 2013 dollars. Raising that minimum wage was one of the main elements of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. How's that for nostalgia? The Johnson administration was able to raise the minimum wage to $1.60 in 1968, which equates to $10.73 in 2013 dollars, which is higher than Disney's proposed increase. Maybe that is why Walt Disney was a major supporter of Barry Goldwater.

Second, we need to look at what Disney is asking the union to give up for the benefit of giving its employees future wages that won't begin until 2016 and will be lower than the equivalent hourly wages in 1968. The current contract, negotiated in 2010, was up for renewal in March but extended to July, with retroactive back to the original start date.

According to the STCU, "Proposals from representatives of Disney included: taking away your call sick free days; ending the requirement to offer you a shop steward when questioned by management; taking away schedule bids in person and make all schedule bids with a proxy only; the right to reprimand or fire you if you call in with less than two hours notice prior to your shift starting and ending the requirement to get the Union's agreement on new scheduling methods."

Disney also plans to stop giving out any retirement plans to newly hired employees in favor of 410(k) plans, and its current proposal delineates a 5½-year contract, with no raises during the last two years. (As of now, STCU President Ed Chambers likes the proposed wage increase, but has stated that the proposed elimination of pensions for new hires is a "non-starter.")

The impact of living with Disney's pay scale is troubling. In an area where rents average $800 for one-bedroom apartments, the House of Mouse is the only home many employees and their families know.

The town of Kissimmee, which borders the Disney property, is one of the main housing areas for Disney "Cast Members." It's also the county seat of Osceola County and home to 1,216 homeless families who are living in low-cost economy motels with no permanent address. The median household income of 300,000-resident Osceola County is $24,128, or just slightly above the federal poverty line for a family of four. Many of the motel owners complain about their temporary residents for overcrowding rooms and making payments inconsistently (not a problem for the higher-priced tourist hotels and motels).

According to a statement given to The Associated Press, Disney spokesperson Jacquee Polak said it's "a stretch to make a connection between our strong collective bargaining offer to Cast Members and the homeless issue in Central Florida."

"Walt Disney World is actively involved with community organizations to help address homelessness in Central Florida and its underlying causes," continued Polak. "Our efforts range from financial contributions and in-kind support to volunteer service."

There are many employees not represented by unions. They include documented workers on work visas (not subject to minimum wage rules) and full-time administrative and technical staff, whose non-negotiated contract allows Disney to schedule them for no more than 35 hours, making their healthcare costs, before and after taxes, a much larger proportion of gross pay. That provides a reason to drop employee-based health plans in favor of Medicaid or the health exchanges if qualified. Many employees fall into the range that would have been covered by Medicaid Expansion had Florida agreed to accept the federally paid plan.

I wouldn't look to the Florida Legislature for help, either. Both Disney and Darden restaurants showed their lobbying strength by fighting minimum wage increases, including the support of a bill that would have blocked local municipalities, such as the city of Kissimmee, from overriding our current lax federal and state minimum wage laws or mandating employee health plans. Such a move would have not only increased the average income in that area, but also promoted local commerce and taxes. (Of course, tourists weaken that bargaining point by spending far more than the residents.)

Disney employees may be in "The Most Magical Place on Earth," but it looks as if it is dark magic that surrounds them.

Gary Stein, MPH, a native Detroiter, worked for the Centers for Disease Control, landed in the Tampa Bay area to work for the State Tobacco program and is now a health advocate and activist and blogger for the Huffington Post. Column courtesy of Context Florida.