Mouse Chow

Photo by Jack GouldDisney CEO Michael Eisner earned $72.8 million in 2000. Despite plunging Disney stock and a slowing economy, he's on track for another solid year.

While Eisner picks up big paychecks, hundreds of Disneyland workers are picking up free food from the back of a truck.

Daniel and Ana Soltero both work in the room-service department of Anaheim's Disneyland Hotel. It used to be full-time work, but since Sept. 11, neither husband nor wife has been needed more than two days per week. Never mind Christmas gifts, dinners out or new clothes: for the first time since they began working at the hotel five years ago, the Solteros don't have enough money to buy food. So on a recent evening, the couple showed up at a two-story apartment building in Jeffrey-Lynne, the densely populated barrio just east of Disneyland, and stood in line for a free bag of groceries.

The story is similar for hundreds of other low-wage Disneyland Hotel workers following the steep drop in tourism after Sept. 11. Although Disney announced it was hiring 900 new workers at the theme park to help with the relatively bustling Christmas season, those jobs aren't the same ones available to most residents of Jeffrey-Lynne, many of whom are recent immigrants with meager English-language skills. While the seasonal nature of employment opportunities at Disneyland appeals to many workers—young, white, middle-class kids looking for extra cash during summers and holidays—it's not exactly an advantage to minimum-wage room-service workers like the Solteros. In fact, to make matters worse for its lowest-paid workers, Disneyland has reportedly cut medical insurance for people who work less than 22 hours per week—just in time for the winter flu season.

"Without this program, we wouldn't be able to feed our five kids," Ana Soltero said of the Jeffrey-Lynne program. "This is our first time here, but we'll be coming back next week."

In line behind the Solteros, 15 other couples waited patiently while Manuel Borja—also a Disneyland Hotel room-service worker—and two other volunteers stuffed grocery bags with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, rice, juice, candy and Doritos.

"We're at your service," a cheerful Borja shouted as he handed out overstuffed bags. "Remember, we're also here every Thursday morning. Tell your friends! Here, have another cucumber."

The program is drawing other Disneyland Hotel workers who are seemingly better off. Standing in line behind the Solteros at the end of his day shift, Rafael Villegas looked as well-dressed and distinguished as a college professor. A 10-year veteran of the Disneyland Hotel's room-service department, Villegas said he isn't worried about being laid off, and because of his seniority, he hasn't seen his hours reduced. "Only the workers with less experience are being asked to work less hours," he explained.

Still, he's here, genuinely happy for the free food but in a rush to get home. With a wife and two young children to support, Villegas—like all room-service workers, regardless of seniority—earns only $6.25 per hour. Thanks to the economic downturn, tips—which make up the bulk of Villegas' income—have dried up.

The fact that you can find a full-time Disney worker in a food line speaks volumes about the nature of low-wage employers such as Disneyland, which hasn't lifted a finger to provide any relief for its workers since Sept. 11. Well before the terrorist attacks, Disney officials laid off more than 2,000 workers nationwide, despite posting huge profits for 2000. Sept. 11 has only made matters worse. Already two restaurants—Mondavi's and Wolfgang Puck's Avalon Cov—have pulled out of Disney's sanctuary-quiet California Adventure. (A Disneyland spokesman did not return several calls for this story.)

Officials with the union representing low-wage Disneyland workers say nearly every job category at the park has been affected. Jeannette Love, a business representative for Local 681 of Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), said management recently tried to lay off bell-service workers and force valet workers to take on those duties in addition to their regular jobs. After the union protested, management relented.

Montoya: Some days, "The refrigerator
will be picked clean."
Photo by Jack Gould

"But I just had another meeting with [Disneyland] labor relations and room-service management," Love said. "They want to schedule a meeting for cutting back the hours of all room-service workers." According to Love, many of the restaurants that haven't fled the resort have dropped lunch service altogether.

One way or another, Love claimed, a majority of Disneyland workers are working fewer hours and having trouble making ends meet. "The company isn't doing anything to help them," she said. "Absolutely nothing."

Sergio Contreras, assistant to the president of Local 681, said the union is running its own food program to help workers who've been shifted from full-time to one or two days per week. "For a while, we received food from the Orange County Food Bank," he said. "We were feeding 1,500 families, but we had to stop it because we were draining the food bank. However, we were able to hand out hundreds of Thanksgiving food baskets to workers who were laid off temporarily or had their hours cut back."

According to Contreras, Local 681 also purchased hundreds of $20 food vouchers from a local Ralphs store and distributed them to workers. "Union dues from our membership and donations from other unions helped pay for that," he added. "But that's just enough money for two days' worth of food, and they didn't last long. With so many workers affected, it just never stops."

United Neighborhoods started its own food program five years ago. Since then, the Anaheim community group has distributed free groceries to dozens of local residents every Thursday at 10 a.m. But the program has doubled since Sept. 11; four weeks ago, United Neighborhoods added an extra evening shift to help feed Disneyland workers like the Solteros who work during the day. Borja learned about the food giveaway from Josie Montoya, the United Neighborhoods activist who founded the program.

"I told her that Sept. 11 has really hurt the workers," Borja recalled. "She invited me to come down and help provide their food to the Disneyland workers. I posted a notice about the program on the employee bulletin board at the hotel."

The United Neighborhoods food program is completely self-sufficient. Each year, the group pays a $300 fee to Worldwide Ministries, a Christian homeless-relief organization based in Los Angeles. In return, United Neighborhoods receives a weekly shipment of groceries. Along with roughly 35 other Orange County-based nonprofits—most of which feed homeless people—the group sends a driver to the Crystal Cathedral each Thursday morning. There, a truck from LA unloads the food and divides it evenly among the organizations.

United Neighborhoods picks up between 800 and 1,000 pounds of groceries each week. But the group also gets free food from the Orange County Community Development Council, which provides up to 2,500 pounds of food to any local charity that can safely—and cleanly—store the produce.

"We typically go there once a week," Montoya said. "There's no guarantee what you'll find because the stock changes day to day. You might go one day when there's a great selection of food, but the next time, the refrigerator will be picked clean."

To help with United Neighborhoods' food program, call Josie Montoya at (714) 774-0107.

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