Her Lifelong Dream Was to Work for Disney. Now It May Turn Into a Nightmare.
Glynndana Shevlin, 60, has worked at the Disneyland Hotel for 32 years. But now she is left waiting and worrying if she’s one of the 28,000 “Cast Members” who will be laid off.
For 32 years, Glynndana Shevlin worked at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California, and through 29 of them, her spot was a concierge club called the E-Ticket Lounge. From 2 p.m. to 10:30 at night, Shevlin hosted guests on the 11th floor of a wing known as the Adventure Tower, serving continental breakfasts, chips and salsa, appetizers, and drinks. As a sommelier, she specialized in wine. “I have long-term guests that have been calling me asking me, ‘How’s it going during the pandemic?’” Shevlin said. “My phone’s been off the hook.”
The calls picked up on Tuesday, after Disney announced they would be laying off 28,000 domestic workers, or “Cast Members,” at their theme parks. Shevlin got the news late that evening. She had been off-grid all day, on a hike with her daughter, whom she’d visited in Oakland. Once they descended, she checked her email. “I saw the message,” Shevlin said. “The way I feel is a little surreal.”
The email Shevlin received came from Josh D’Amaro, Disney’s chairman of Parks, Experiences, and Products. In a public statement on the layoffs, D’Amaro blamed California Governor Gavin Newsom. The massive staff cuts, he wrote, stemmed from “the prolonged impact of COVID-19 on our business... exacerbated in California by the State’s unwillingness to lift restrictions that would allow Disneyland to reopen.”
D’Amaro was referring to the prolonged feud between Disney and Newsom over lockdown restrictions, which barred the parks from reopening until the state met its COVID-19 goals. Elsewhere, Disney resorts have been open for months—Disney World in Orlando reopened back in June, just as Florida saw a surge in COVID-19 cases.
By contrast, only a small section of the Anaheim park has resumed operation: the outdoor retail and restaurant strip known as the Downtown Disney District, where they have declined to implement on-site testing for staff. Last month, The Daily Beast investigated the district’s failure to report and trace cases of COVID-19 among its workers. “Disney doesn’t want to test,” one Cast Member wrote in a text message obtained by The Daily Beast, “because it would show just how many of u r getting sick and they’d have to close.”
Gov. Newsom did not respond to a request for comment, deferring to the state’s Department of Public Health: “The COVID 19 pandemic has impacted the health and livelihoods of too many workers across this country,” Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly wrote in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Our Blueprint for a Safer Economy is driven by science to keep the risk of COVID-19 transmission low.”
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Shevlin said. “I want Disney to open, but at the same time, I want it safe. I want security. I am 60 years old. I don’t care what anybody says, coronavirus is serious... I want on-site testing. I want temperatures taken. I want all precautions to be handled. I don’t want to go back to avoid losing my job. I want to go back because it’s safe.”
Shevlin has wanted to work at Disneyland since 1970, when she tuned in to an installation of the TV anthology series The Magical World of Disney. At the time, Shevlin was living with her mother in St. Louis, Missouri, and obsessed with the show. (“I would always say, ‘We can’t go out on Sunday nights, we gotta watch Disney.’”) In this particular episode, a young Kurt Russell explored the Anaheim park’s Haunted Mansion alongside family musical group the Osmond Brothers. “Donny [Osmond] is maybe a year older than me, so he’s my age group. He was so cute, being an 8-year-old girl,” Shevlin said. “I thought: ‘I want to be a Disney worker.’”
Shevlin later moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and spent her teen years with her father. But just months shy of her 18th birthday, she reunited with her mother in Orange County. They celebrated at Disneyland. “This was one of my favorite moments with my mother,” Shevlin said. “We were watching the [Disney Main Street] Electrical Parade and she bought me this huge big Mickey Mouse. We had to put it in plastic because it started raining—more like a drizzle. But we watched the Electrical Parade and we were dancing. It was a highlight of my life. I still remember it.”
A decade later, Shevlin saw a newspaper advertisement for a position at the Disneyland Hotel. She drove over immediately to apply and interview. It was 1988. “At that time, they had answering machines,” Shevlin said. “When I walked in the door [after the interview], the light was blinking. They told me to show up for orientation two days later.”
It was a solid union job, Shevlin said, with healthcare, free meals, and an hourly wage well above the state minimum. Those conditions changed over the years. Before the pandemic, Shevlin’s hospitality union, Unite Here! Local 11, had negotiated an hourly rate of $15.95. “I’m one of the union leaders,” she said. “When I’m at lunch and I meet the new workers, I always tell them, ‘Don’t hesitate to come and sit down and I’ll explain a lot of things and help you through your employment.’ Things like that. So they have my number and they call me.”
After hearing the news of layoffs, Shevlin, alongside many of her union colleagues, pinned their hopes on a bill in the California legislature. Assembly Bill 3216, which passed the state’s Senate and Assembly, would have offered hospitality and airport workers the right to be rehired if and when their employers resumed regular business. Tuesday evening, the “Right to Recall” bill was sitting on Newsom’s desk, where he would either sign or veto it in less than 36 hours. Some of Shevlin’s coworkers had caravanned to the capitol that day to urge him to pass it. The bill’s author, Assembly Member Ash Kalra of San Jose, fasted for 50 hours in solidarity.
“The thing I’m counting on,” Shevlin said on Wednesday, “is that Gavin Newsom right now sign AB3216. I know that if we’re going to be laid off, it will start on Nov. 1, and right now I do have health care. But I don’t know more than that. Health care is a big, big deal for me right now, because I’ve been having dental work. I’m 60 years old. I’m not someone who needs a lot of help, but it is important at my age. I take several medications—Lipitor to keep my cholesterol down, so I’m not diabetic. I just hope my health care stays. I live alone in my little apartment that I rent out behind a house—it’s a mother-in-law quarters. I have my own kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. It’s really nice. But rent is expensive. Food is expensive. I just need the security. I’m sorry, I’m rambling, but I need it. Health care and AB3216 are important to me.”
But that evening, Newsom vetoed the bill. The governor’s office did not respond to comment, but his rationale may have come from the California Chamber of Commerce, which placed the legislation on its annual “job killers” list. Disney did not comment on the veto.
When asked whether the company planned to rehire former staff post-pandemic, a Disney spokesperson said they “look forward to providing opportunities for cast to return to the Company” when “the impact of the pandemic” has passed. “Many factors will ultimately determine how and when that might happen,” they wrote. “For Cast Members covered by a collective bargaining agreement, we look forward to continued conversations with their unions.”
Shevlin was at home when she heard, catching up on the presidential debate from the night before. One colleague got word from Sacramento and let her know. Three more colleagues sent her texts. Over the next two days, Shevlin would get more than 50 calls from colleagues asking about their future. Former guests rang from Florida, Washington, and Canada.
“I’m heartbroken that [Newsom] didn’t protect us and the airline workers,” Shevlin said. “Other than maybe crying, I don’t know what else to say. I’m just a single person, living in a neighborhood, waiting to see if I’ll have a job.”