Hit with a hefty dental bill, a Disney employee faced the choice of paying it or buying groceries.
Another Disney worker’s infant son was diagnosed with food allergies and needed a specific, pricey formula when formula shortages were intensifying nationwide. The family found the bulk of their grocery budget was going toward feeding him.
Both came to a Disney employee food bank called Cast Member Pantry for help. The nonprofit organization is not affiliated with the company, though Disney has donated money to it, founder Emily Lartigue said.
Similar stories of people facing financial difficulties are becoming more common as food, housing and other costs have soared to record highs in recent months. Though a historic increase raised the theme park’s minimum wage to $15 an hour in October 2021, union leaders say inflation has offset workers’ gains, and many are struggling to pay their bills.
“A lot of it does have to do with inflation, the rising costs of rents — just being able to afford to live somewhere in Orlando right now is tough,” Lartigue said.
But as the need has remained strong, donations have fallen at the pantry, which relies entirely on gifts, Lartigue said. She said that could be due to tightening budgets or a lack of awareness of the ongoing need.
Cast Member Pantry, founded in March 2020 to serve Disney employees furloughed or laid-off because of the pandemic, has not yet had to turn away anyone for lack of donations thanks to careful financing. Pantry volunteers have become savvy coupon cutters to save money where possible, Lartigue said, and the organization is looking into applying for grants.
“The only concern is what the future looks like: for how long we are going to be able to continue serving cast members?” Lartigue said.
When asked about the pantry and workers’ perspectives on pay, Disney pointed to its array of employee benefits and its development of 1,300 affordable housing units for employees and others.
“For our Cast Members, we continue to make significant and personal investments to employee careers and lives through benefits like our 100% tuition payment Disney Aspire program, affordable health care plans, paid time off and more, building on our earlier success leading a community standard for a $15 an hour starting wage,” spokeswoman Andrea Finger said in a statement.
Lartigue said Disney hosted a community support program in mid-2021 where employees could donate via a payroll deduction, with the company matching their contributions.
The amount was “very significant,” she said, but Disney asked her to keep the number private. Disney would not comment on the donation.
Gathering first groceries
Lartigue, a former organization development consultant for Disney’s Parks, Experiences and Products division, founded Cast Member Pantry after helping laid-off Disney College Program participants move out of their Walt Disney World housing and realizing the groceries they left behind could be put to use.
She loaded her car with the food and advertised it on social media to fellow Disney employees, starting the first distribution. Donations grew from a trunk load of groceries to a garage full and eventually enough to fill a storage unit staffed by dozens of volunteers, many current or former Disney employees.
The pantry started inviting employees to shop at the storage unit by appointment that March. Once volunteers identified the top groceries people needed, they started assembling bags with necessities and distributing them in July 2020.
The pantry was able to serve around 300 workers weekly that way, Lartigue said. She estimated it has distributed around 8,000 bags of groceries to nearly 6,000 families to date.
“It’s a really special thing,” she said.
Now, it delivers food directly to employees through the grocery service Instacart, eliminating the potential hurdle of transportation for recipients. It still has a small storage unit for fundraisers and events instead of food.
“I really think that’s just the future of food pantries in general, right? It’s utilizing technology and making things as easy as it can be to help individuals in need,” Lartigue said.
Cast members in Florida, California and Hawaii can register for distributions once per month via the pantry’s website or social media pages. Workers are eligible for a free delivery once the organization verifies their employment status.
The pantry budgets about $65 per family for a delivery, including Instacart fees. That total cost has risen by $10, or about 18%, in recent months due to inflation, Lartigue said.
“We try to be really, really frugal where we can to get them the most bang for their buck,” she said.
The pantry accepts donations through its website and is always looking for volunteers, Lartigue said. She hopes it can officially partner with Disney someday for further support.
‘Max out my credit cards’
Though Disney’s starting wages range from $15 to $21 per hour depending on the position — rates that influenced other local employers, like Universal, to raise their pay — Disney’s union members say that isn’t enough as costs climb.
Kadejha Reid, who works in quick service food at Harambe Market in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, said her income cannot feed herself and her young son.
“I do not qualify for food stamps,” she said. “I was denied four times because I make ‘too much money,’ and the $15 that I do have is not enough. I had to max out my credit cards that I had and even open a new credit card.”
Reid shared her story during a recent roundtable discussion with Orange County Commissioner Maribel Gomez Cordero hosted by Unite Here Local 737. The union ran a food bank for Disney workers during the first year of the pandemic, when many were furloughed or had been laid off, but closed it in 2021.
Tiara Moton, a cook at the Be Our Guest restaurant at the Magic Kingdom, said she struggles to afford basic groceries, like milk, for herself and her nearly 3-year-old daughter. The restaurant charges $62 per adult.
“We can’t keep living like this,” she said. “... They say, ‘work harder, work harder.’ You could work yourself to death and still have nothing to show for it. I don’t want to be working every day and then I go home and I have nothing left to give to my child; I have nothing left to give myself.”
The discussion came as the union coalition representing Disney’s workers, the Service Trades Council Union, is preparing to renegotiate its contract with Disney this fall. Pay and benefits are a priority in these negotiations, union leaders said.
Lartigue remembers living paycheck-to-paycheck early in her Disney career and agrees that employees should be paid more. But she said low pay is not unique to Disney and is something workers are fighting across all industries.
“I don’t like placing the blame on one company,” she said. “I really think that’s a broader problem that has to be addressed at a larger level.”