Classes at the University of Central Florida began last week, and Maddy Johnson still hadn’t found enough money to buy her textbooks.
The 23-year-old safari driver at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park was living on ramen noodles and the McDonald’s Dollar Menu — and stressing about her $20,000 in student debt — when she got the text message Friday: The Disney workers were finally getting a raise.
“I teared up,” Johnson said. “It was that big of a relief.”
The elementary education major, who works full time at Disney’s Kilimanjaro Safaris, guiding guests through acres of giraffes, elephants and antelopes, is among about 38,000 workers at the Florida parks who will see their pay rise to $15 an hour by 2021.
That would mean a $4 hike for Johnson, who wants to become a teacher after she finishes her night studies at the Orlando school. “I can finally buy supplies,” she said.
Disney lauded the move as the “largest proposal ever” for Park employees, who could see the first 50-cent pay bump kick in on Sept. 6 if union members vote to approve the contract.
“We are thrilled our Cast Members will have the chance to vote on what is one of the highest entry-level service wages in the country,” Robbin Almand, vice president of labor relations for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, said in a statement. “This represents a 50 percent bump in pay bringing starting wages to $15 an hour by 2021.”
The deal would also come with a $1,000 bonus for every employee, a plan that was unveiled last year after President Trump signed a bill slashing corporate tax rates.
Union leaders expect members — thousands of housekeepers, cooks, tour guides and pyrotechnicians, among other service workers — to back Disney’s offer, which comes in exchange for one sacrifice: Workers would no longer be allowed to switch roles every six months. Under the new contract, they would have to wait a year.
“Cast Members will still be able to transfer as often as once a year, which provides them a great experience to learn a new job before moving on to a new role,” a Disney spokesman said.
Eric Clinton, president of Unite Here Local 362, which is part of the Service Trades Council Union — the labor coalition that bargained with Disney — said the employer is trying to reduce costly turnover at a time when the labor market is tight. Florida’s unemployment rate is 3.7 percent, compared with a national rate of 3.9 percent.
The change wouldn’t apply to promotions, Clinton said.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “People think this is a great deal, and they’re excited about it.”
A video posted to Unite Here Local 362’s Facebook page Saturday showed workers bursting into applause at the offer.
This celebration comes after more than a year of negotiations, which at times grew heated.
In February,, the Service Trades Council Union the Service Trades Council Union — a coalition of six locals, including ranches of the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and the Transportation Communications Union — filed a federal unfair-labor-practices complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, accusing Disney of refusing to pay the bonuses it had announced until employees agreed to a new contract.
“We believe an effort by Disney to link cast members’ raises with the $1,000 Trump tax cut bonus would constitute an unlawful Unfair Labor Practice for discriminating against Cast Members engaged in Bargaining,” Jeremy Haicken, the STCU’s secretary-treasurer, said at the time in a letter to the entertainment giant.
The mood changed after union leaders met again in May with Disney, which returned to the bargaining table more open to their concerns,Clinton said.
Disney joins Target as the latest national brand to commit to boosting wages to at least $15 an hour. In September, the retailer announced that it planned to hit that pay goal by 2020.
Target, which employs about 323,000 people, framed the decision as a long-term investment that would help the stores “continue to recruit and retain strong team members.” and provide an elevated experience for its guests and in the communities it serves,” the company said at the time.