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Wages and living conditions for Disneyland Resort workers were the center of an Anaheim City Council discussion Tuesday, as part of an ongoing debate over what Disney – the city’s largest employer and a city-subsidized private business – owes to Anaheim residents and its employees.

A recent labor-funded study called “Working for the Mouse” found almost three-quarters of surveyed Disneyland Resort employees say they don’t earn enough money to cover basic expenses each month. One in ten said they were homeless at least once over the past two years, and more than two-thirds said they are food insecure.

More than 85 percent of union workers at Disneyland earn less than $15 an hour, according to the report. Of the 17,000 union members who could have taken the survey, 3,338 live in Anaheim.

Disney has received more than $1 billion in city tax subsidies and incentives over the past two decades, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

“[Disney is] a company that’s richly rewarded by its consumers, and has been aided by the city, and yet you’ve got the front-line workforce that is not getting enough income to survive,” Daniel Flaming, one of the authors of the report, told the city council Tuesday. “So that does have impacts on the social safety net and the communities where those workers live.”

Councilman Jose Moreno placed the report on the agenda for discussion.

The discussion came amid a signature-gathering drive by local labor unions for a controversial “living wage” ballot measure, which, if placed on the ballot and passed by voters, would require companies receiving city subsidies, like Disney, to pay an $18-an-hour minimum wage by 2022.

And it comes ahead of a city council election in November that will decide whether a majority of the seven-member council will remain opposed to the corporate subsidies that have benefited Disney and the tourism industry.

The report, a collaboration between Occidental College and the Economic Roundtable, was funded by the Coalition of Resort Labor Unions, which represents 17,000 of the resort’s 21,000 union workers, or 58 percent of the resort’s nearly 30,000 total employees. Of the 17,000 people invited to participate in the online survey, 5,000 responded.

Beyond the survey findings, the report advocates for raising wages and argued Disneyland can easily afford to do so, citing rising ticket prices – which have grown 59 percent between 2007 and 2016 – and growing revenue, which increased by 98 percent over the same period.

Disney spokeswoman Suzi Brown has called the report “inaccurate and unscientific” and told the Guardian newspaper that it was “paid for by politically motivated labor unions and its results are deliberately distorted.”

Brown said the average full-time salary for Disney workers was around $37,000 in 2017.

Councilwomen Kris Murray and Lucille Kring both asked several questions about the report’s methodology, questioning why it did not survey a sampling of all Disneyland employees.

The researchers said they had access to employees’ contact information based on the participation of their unions, and not all unions wanted to participate.

Murray said the report unfairly singles out Disney when economic insecurity, the high cost of housing and wages are an issue for workers across Southern California, not just Disneyland employees.

Flaming and Peter Dreier, another author of the report, said the questions drew from commonly used survey questions vetted by researchers. They said respondents in the sample also match the larger population of Disneyland workers on factors such as gender, full-time versus part-time workers, and length of time at the resort.

“The questions all have positive options as well as negative options. They could have told us things are wonderful – we could have gotten that,” Flaming said.

Dreier said the source of their funding did not affect their results but the union coalition asked researchers to “hold a mirror up to their members.”

“They didn’t know how many are homeless, so we asked the question, have you been homeless?” Dreier said. “Those are the facts. We couldn’t make them up.”

Dreier, responding to a question from Murray about the report’s focus on Disney, said “whenever there’s an affordable housing development proposed in Anaheim, the company has opposed it.”

“That is absolutely false,” Murray replied, prompting Dreier to qualify his statement.

“I’ve read stories in the newspapers that have said, maybe not every time, but when there have been proposals for affordable housing, Disney has opposed them,” Dreier said.

In 2007, Disney sued the city to stop a 1,500-unit apartment development near Disneyland, which included 225 affordable units, arguing the project violated a special zoning district reserved solely for resort development.

“We have built some of the largest affordable housing projects in Orange County in recent years and Disney has not once opposed them,” said Murray.

Mayor Tom Tait agreed that, aside from one project, he could not recall Disney opposing any affordable housing projects.

Kring asked why upward mobility was not discussed in the report, pointing to a public speaker, Anaheim resident Becky Murphy, who began as an hourly employee in Disneyland’s college program and now is the manager of that program.

The researchers pointed to data which found 54 percent of workers who have been at Disneyland for 15 years or more still make under $15 an hour.

Disney is investing $50 million on education for its workers and another $25 million annually for the program, Kring said.

“So if people are still in hourly positions after 15 years, they may want to consider those [programs],” Kring said.

Those who focus on the report’s methodology don’t want to “confront the substance” of the report, Moreno said.

“This is a company that said, ‘we need this money if we’re going to invest in Anaheim,’” Moreno said, referring to a subsidy granted to a Disney luxury hotel project. “For some reason, the methods of the reports used to justify the subsidy, there wasn’t an inquisition on the methods of those studies.”

Discussion of the survey was mixed with commentary on the proposed ballot initiative, which will need at least 21,000 signatures from registered voters to make it onto the ballot.

Todd Ament, CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, argued the initiative will do little to address the high cost of living and result in the cancellation of at least two luxury hotel projects that are heavily subsidized by the city, deter future development and drive companies to invest in other cities.

The Chamber and other business groups have formed the “No on the Anaheim Job-Killer” coalition to discourage people from signing the union petition.

“The survey to be discussed tonight was generated for political reasons as the union is seeking to negotiate at the ballot box rather than at the bargaining table,” Ament said.

Trevor O’Neill, who is running for city council in District 6 to represent Anaheim Hills, said the arguments made by supporters of the ballot measure mirror the beliefs of the German philosopher and economist Karl Marx.

“So if we’re to receive and file the Economic Roundtable’s version of Das Kapital,” O’Neill said, referring to one of Marx’s major works, “might I suggest that at the next city council meeting, we receive and file the Wealth of Nations?”

Wealth of Nations, by Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, is one of the foundational texts behind free-market economics.

Cynthia Ward, who is running for mayor, said the same people criticizing the union funding for the report have also touted various reports about Disneyland’s contribution to the local economy that were commissioned by Disney.

“So fair is fair, and politically motivated is politically motivated,” Ward said.

The latest economic impact report commissioned by Disneyland, released in 2015 and based on 2013 data, estimated the resort generates $5.7 billion annually in economic activity for Southern California.

The same study, conducted by Arduin, Laffer & Moore Econometrics, found Disneyland drives 80 percent of hotel occupancy in Anaheim, and accounts for one-third of all transit occupancy tax revenue for the city.

The resort accounts for nearly a third of Orange County’s $9.6 billion tourism market and generates $370 million in state and local tax revenues, according to the report.

Several Disneyland Resort employees told the city council the survey reflects their lives and the predicaments of their co-workers, who worry about how they will eat and pay rent each month.

Artemis Bell, a Disneyland employee of seven years, said she is constantly on edge and worried about rent.

“With all the talk of the homelessness issue in Anaheim…it makes me even more stressed out and afraid about what will happen if I’m not able to pay my basic bills with my 40-hour-a-week job,” Bell said. “I think that’s inappropriate from one of the largest corporations in the world.”

Jorge Iniestra, an employee of the Disneyland Hotel for more than 20 years, said he and other supporters of the ballot measure don’t see Disney as an enemy and love their jobs.

“Are we asking for Disney to step in and solve all our problems? No, we are not,” Iniestra said. “All we are asking for is a living wage. We’re not asking for a wage that lets us buy a second home or that luxury car we all want to have – this is about food.”

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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