Kissimmee resident Veronica Bermudez is one of the thousands of Walt Disney World workers struggling to pay their bills amid the resort’s closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.
She has worked as a cook for a year at the Flying Fish restaurant on Disney’s BoardWalk, a job she enjoys and is ready to return to as soon as Disney calls her back in.
The mother of three is frustrated with the state’s unemployment system where her daily calls go unanswered and she has yet to receive payment to offset her husband’s construction wages.
“It’s been hard to pay the rent. If it’s not the rent then it’s the light bill or some other bill,” Bermudez said. “I feel desperate.”
After the theme parks and resorts closed at the end of March, Disney initially furloughed its cast members to help offset the financial impact of the closures.
However, Bermudez is part of the more than 80 percent of workers surveyed by a local union that have not received any or all of their unemployment benefits from the state.
UNITE HERE Central Florida, Union 737, represents 19,000 housekeeping and food and beverage workers who work at the property, of which 4,400 live in Osceola County.
The union polled its workers, who had to apply for benefits through Florida’s employment system after the furlough benefits ran out.
According to a poll of nearly 5,000 Union 737 workers conducted between May 23 - 26, nearly 31 percent, or 1,499 of workers surveyed, stated they hadn’t received any of their unemployment benefits. Almost 54 percent, or 2,631 workers polled, had received some of their expected benefits.
“Overwhelmingly, we found that our members are waiting for money that the state of Florida owes them,” Ella Wood, research analyst for UNITE HERE, said.
Just 15.7 percent, or 768 workers, stated they received all of their benefits by the time of the survey.
Osceola County led the state in unemployment numbers at 31.1 percent in May, according to data released June 22, followed by Orange County at 23.2 percent.
Wood stated these numbers do not show the entire picture as they only show those people who have been able to file for unemployment and not those still struggling with the system.
Florida’s unemployment system has reportedly been plagued by issues such as technical and telephone connectivity problems. State lawmakers have called for a federal investigation into the system.
Union 737 organizer Carmen Ramos helped Bermudez and tens of other workers file for unemployment, pushing through the technology issues. For one person, it took six days for Ramos to complete the application for unemployment due to bugs in the process.
“Disney did the right thing [by furloughing workers],” Ramos said. “It’s the government who isn’t doing their part.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis has defended the system, adding that the backlog is being processed and money is being distributed to those who need it. He extended the work search requirements the unemployment system usually requires for Floridians to receive benefits through July 4, meaning those individuals seeking benefits currently don’t have to prove they are seeking work to receive financial assistance.
Receiving an average of 20 calls a day from workers desperate for assistance, Ramos has strong feelings toward DeSantis’ comments about the unemployment system.
“The governor needs to stop lying. Families are suffering,” she said. “If you apply for unemployment, you should get it. We put him there and we can vote him out.”
While Walt Disney World isn’t planned to partially reopen until mid-July, after closing all its Orlando theme parks at the end of March, some employees reported to work June 14 to prepare for the reopening of the property.
Disney Springs, the company’s shopping and entertainment district, reopened partially on May 20 with precautions in place.
Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom are slated to reopen to the public on July 11, while Epcot and Hollywood Studios will follow suit on July 15, Disney announced in May.
Disney additionally announced June 22 their plan to reopen their resorts, beginning with Fort Wilderness and select Deluxe Villa Resorts such as Bay Lake Tower, BoardWalk Villas and Saratoga Springs. The plan staggers the openings through October.
Kissimmee Mayor Jose Alvarez said just 2,000 of Union 737’s 19,000 workers have been asked to return to their positions and the consequences of a lack of unemployment benefits coupled with the phased reopening of Disney property is devastating the community.
Alvarez is concerned tourists will continue to stay away after Florida’s recent record-setting daily increases in coronavirus cases, fearing Florida is replacing New York as the country’s “hot spot” after the state on June 22 surpassed 100,000 cases.
“It’s scary. All of these employees are scared that Disney will have to pull back [after reopening],” he said. “All of these workers have already gone through any savings they had.”
Between a lack of unemployment benefits and the governor’s eviction stay expiring July 1, the mayor, who volunteers for the union’s weekly food distribution sites, is worried state officials don’t understand how alarming the situation has become for many of these families.
A 2016 survey conducted by the city of Kissimmee found that 60 percent of people living in the hotels and motels along U.S. Highway 192 are hospitality workers, many of whom work at Disney properties.
Alvarez publicly invited DeSantis to Kissimmee to “feel the pulse of the people” at a June 15 press conference with the union, imploring the state to do more for those workers who need help while the state slowly reopens.
“I’m hoping he makes the right decisions,” Alvarez said. “It’s one day at a time. The governor is the face of the state and it’s time for him to do the right thing.”