Poverty pay at the Disneyland Resort is making international headlines following the release of a searing survey last week on the economic hardships of workers who toil for the mouse. In the wake of findings that showed 85 percent of cast members (as Disney calls its employees) make less than $15 per hour and 11 percent have experienced homelessness in the past two years, the Coalition of Resort Labor Unions announced a living wage ballot initiative. But Yeweinisht Mesfin, an Eritrean immigrant night custodian at California Adventure, didn’t live long enough to tell the story of her struggles.
Known by coworkers as “Weini,” Mesfin failed to show up to work shortly after Thanksgiving weekend in 2016. A reliable, hardworking woman, she regularly put in 48 hours, six days a week. Something seemed amiss. Mesfin’s coworkers began to panic, calling her frequently and frantically to no avail. Fearing the worst, they blitzed social media seeking information on her whereabouts. Weeks later, on Dec. 19, Orange police responded to a report of a body found in a car outside a 24 Hour Fitness gym. There, they found Mesfin slumped in the green Honda Civic she lived out of for years. She had died of a heart attack on Nov. 30, just five days after her 61st birthday. Mesfin’s passing went ignored by news media.
Before her tragic death, Mesfin worked graveyard shifts at California Adventure and is still fondly remembered by her fellow coworkers, past and present. “She was very meticulous,” recalls Mindy Martin, a California Adventure custodian who worked the night shift with Mesfin. “Everything had to be perfect and according to company rule. At first, we kind of tangoed and then after about a month we started hanging out, becoming inseparable from there.” Former custodian Vanessa Muñoz remembers having been warned of Mesfin’s toughness before they first met for training, but soon became disarmed. “She just cracked this big smile,” Muñoz recalls.
Working Cars Land together, Mesfin sped circles around a younger Muñoz on restroom cleaning assignments. Despite her vigorous work ethic, Muñoz saw the toll the job took on Mesfin. “She would put her head down and completely crash until break time was over,” she says. And then, there were health issues. Mesfin suffered from heart problems, took water pills and strayed from salty foods, preferring healthy fruits and vegetables instead. But struggling with financial hardships, she couldn’t always afford her prescriptions without some help, even at the cheaper onsite pharmacy at the Disneyland Resort.
Though Mesfin enjoyed the admiration of her coworkers, she kept quiet about her private life. When speaking to Muñoz over the phone, Mesfin would mention roommates and having company over, but no one knew where she lived. It took six years before Mesfin confided to Martin what she hid from everybody else. “What’s going on?” Martin asked. “Well, I don’t have a place to live,” Mesfin replied. “I’m living out of my car.” She had a gym membership where she took showers, kept possessions in three storage units and slept in her Civic after night shifts. Everything took a turn for the worse when Mesfin’s previous job bottomed out and she lost her apartment. “That’s how she lived for what I understood as seven years,” Martin says.
The admission shocked Martin, who offered to split the bedroom or living room of her Santa Ana town home, but Mesfin’s pride didn’t allow her to take up the offer. The friend kept the secret with her until Mesfin’s disappearance unraveled everything. When she didn’t call in for her shift, coworkers flooded her phone with unanswered calls and text messages. “We went to go look for her,” Muñoz recalls. But the trail went cold fast. After the third day, Muñoz started posting all over Facebook searching for information. She eventually got in contact with Mesfin’s cousin who posted flyers at 7-Eleven stores and had the ability to file a missing person’s report with Anaheim police on Dec. 9.
The search for Mesfin continued on for 10 more days. By that time, a deceased Mesfin lost her job at California Adventure. “If after three days you don’t call or don’t show up, they automatically fire you,” Muñoz says. But a lead manager became concerned and helped in the efforts to find her. When Mesfin turned up dead, he informed the staff who immediately broke down in tears.
Mesfin’s funeral service took place at the Trinity United Presbyterian Church of Santa Ana. Family and coworkers attended. “You felt her presence there,” says Muñoz. “One of her aunts looked just like her.” She spoke at the funeral recalling happier times at work, ribbing Mesfin about always wearing a fanny pack. After the funeral, friends and family shared breakfast together reminiscing about her life.
A year after Mesfin’s death, Muñoz quit her job, packed up belongings, and drove to Rockford, Illinois where she immediately found work as a custodial supervisor. But Mesfin’s memory always stayed close to heart, especially when the news cycle began spinning with stories of impoverished Disney workers. Dismissive online comments about Muñoz’s former colleagues angered and inspired her to pen a public tribute to Mesfin that went viral.”If they really knew the story about Disney and how we work so hard for chump change, they’d know it isn’t as happy as it seems,” she says.
Martin continues to miss her friend, dearly. She believes Mesfin’s tragic death serves as a cautionary tale as she easily counts five cast members she knows who’ve lived out of their cars recently. “I would hate to see anybody have to go through anything like what Mesfin went through, especially with her being so wonderful,” Martin says. “It was terrible that she had to die alone clutching her keys in a parking lot and then sit there for three weeks.”
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.