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It's not just the paycheck. Disneyland workers say why they're eager to return

·6 min read
ANAHEIM, CA - March 18: Asher Carroll, 3, rides on his dad's shoulders, Austin Carroll, of Orange, at Pixar Pier during the debut of Disney California Adventure's "A Touch of Disney" food event at Disney California Adventure Park Thursday, March 18, 2021 in Anaheim, CA. This spans the entire DCA park and allows guests to eat, interact with characters and explore the grounds. A Touch of Disney, the new limited-time ticketed experience at Disney California Adventure Park which has sold out, takes place March 18 through April 19, 2021. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
A child rides on a man's shoulders during a food event last month at Disney California Adventure. Disney's Anaheim parks will reopen Friday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

For the last few weeks, Glynndana Shevlin has been anxiously monitoring her phone, waiting for a call from the Disneyland Hotel to ask her to return to her job as a food and beverage concierge.

It's been more than a year since the Disneyland resort's three hotels and two theme parks closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Shevlin can think of little else but resuming her old job at the Anaheim resort.

Her yearning is not just about the steady paycheck. "What I miss the most is the human contact," said the 32-year Disneyland veteran, who lives alone with her cat. "I'm ready to put on my uniform."

With Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park set to open Friday, Disney employees who have been rehired and those who are waiting to return to the House of Mouse say they're eager to reunite with co-workers and will be relieved to be added back to the Disney payroll.

"My work is what always keeps me going," said Saturnino Beltran, a 22-year Disneyland veteran, who recently returned to his job at the Disneyland Central Bakery, where the resort's baked goods are made.

To welcome back guests, the Anaheim parks must abide by California pandemic safety guidelines but also must comply with an agreement the company reached with labor union leaders on safety precautions for workers, including the enforcement of physical distancing, temperature checks, indoor ventilation, sick pay and job retention measures.

The parks will reopen with attendance capped at 25% of their usual capacity and staffed by fewer than half of the 32,000 total workers employed before the pandemic. Only one of the resort's three hotels — Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa — will have resumed operation when the parks reopen. Temperature checking booths for visitors and COVID-19 testing facilities for employees have been added throughout the resort.

A recent addendum to state safety guidelines allows out-of-state visitors who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter California theme parks, but Disney representatives say the Anaheim parks will admit only California residents for now.

"I do think it is now safe for workers to return to the parks," said Austin Lynch, a union organizer at Unite Here Local 11, which represents hotel and food service workers at the resort.

That's not how Lynch and many Disney workers felt last June when Disney announced plans to reopen amid a rise in coronavirus cases.

Unite Here and a coalition of other unions that together represented about 17,000 Disneyland employees wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom, saying it was still unsafe to reopen the parks at that time. An online petition signed by more than 56,000 people, including Disneyland employees and their family members, called for the reopening to be delayed until the coronavirus case numbers dropped. A caravan of about 200 cars rolled around the resort to protest the reopening plans.

California kept the parks closed until this spring.

A person with a stroller stands outside Disneyland's gates
Disneyland's gates have been locked to visitors since mid-March 2020. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Employees who are returning must now undergo what Disney representatives call refresher training sessions on their daily work duties, in addition to instruction on new health and safety requirements such as guidelines on disinfecting ride vehicles, performing extra cleaning of tables and chairs and enforcing a rule that visitors in queues maintain six feet of separation if they're not from the same household.

Many returning workers say they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and those who have already started to work at the parks say the staffers are taking the safety rules seriously.

At the Central Bakery, Beltran said, all employees wear masks and work in two shifts, enabling them to maintain six feet of separation in the work area.

More workers will be hired once state health guidelines allow the parks to increase attendance, Disney representatives say.

"I see it as a sign of relief that things are getting back to normal," said Eric Jimenez, the secretary-treasurer for Teamsters Local 952, which represents about 75 Disney employees who operate heavy equipment and maintain and repair attractions and machinery around the parks.

The reopening of Disneyland and Disney California Adventure also means additional work for truck drivers who deliver food, beverages and merchandise to the parks, Jimenez said.

Disney workers said that while the parks were closed, they survived on unemployment checks, took on short-term gigs to make ends meet, looked after elderly parents or spent their extra time on hobbies. Very few out-of-work Disney staffers moved away to find new jobs or abandoned the idea of returning to the Anaheim resort, workers and union leaders say.

Austin Leonard said he didn't hesitate to accept when Disneyland recently called to offer him his job back as a stage manager at Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.

"The park was not meant to be empty and lifeless," he said. "It's truly meant to have energy and life in it."

Leonard said he spent some of his time in the last year gardening, painting, drawing and being with family. But he said he missed the energy of a theme park teeming with visitors.

For many workers, the year without a steady paycheck was a struggle.

Mercedes Rojas was furloughed from her job as a housekeeper at the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa in March 2020. Because of glitches in the state unemployment system, she said, her benefit checks were often late or short of the full amount she was owed. Making matters worse, her husband could find work doing construction only about once a week, she said.

"I felt really sad, thinking about my bills and my rent," Rojas said. "Everything was really bad.”

Rojas is back at her old job at the Grand Californian Hotel, grateful to be employed but worried that a future spike in coronavirus cases could close the parks again.

Glynndana Shevlin, a Disneyland Hotel employee, climbs a staircase holding a tray
Glynndana Shevlin, a furloughed food and beverage concierge at the Disneyland Hotel, hopes she'll get her old job back soon. (Glynndana Shevlin )

Shevlin, meanwhile, is still hoping to be called back. Since the hotels closed, she has landed temporary work as a caregiver for two elderly women and said it pays barely enough to cover her bills. And she misses the levels of energy and glee that surrounded her at her Disneyland Hotel job.

The families that check into the hotel arrive ready to enjoy their vacation, Shevlin said, and her role there was to help them have a good time.

"I see the excitement in their faces," she said. "It brings me back to a happy time in my life."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.