Anaheim Says The Ballot Initiative To Raise Disneyland Wages Doesn't Apply To Disneyland After All

Crowds gather at Disneyland in Anaheim, California on July 24, 2017. (Daryl Barker/KPCC)

Disneyland is less than the Happiest Place On Earth for theme park and hotel workers who have been protesting what they say are the company's poverty wages.

Those employees — and their unions — are putting a ballot measure before Anaheim voters in November. It's called Measure L and it would mandate a $15 minimum wage starting next year for certain hospitality workers in the city, rising to $18 an hour by 2022. National attention has been brought to pay at the park. Bernie Sanders even visited Anaheim this June to advocate for higher wages.

Now, in the latest in a series of twist and turns, Anaheim's City Attorney is saying the ballot measure — if it went through — would not apply to Disneyland (the city's largest employer) after all.

Supporters of the ballot measure say the city won't have the final word, though. They say they're prepared to go to court if the measure does go through and Disney doesn't give out raises.

Here's a guide to this ride:

Where the wild ride began

In February, a survey underwritten by a group of Disneyland workers' unions found that more than 10 percent of employees had experienced homelessness in the last two years. Nearly three quarters said they couldn't cover basic monthly expenses. According to the report, Disneyland's average hourly wage in 2017 was $13.36.

Disney called the report "inaccurate and unscientific." But the survey's authors said they'd reached one in six Disneyland workers to come up with these figures. That set the stage for calls to raise wages at Disneyland. Either through union bargaining — or by taking the fight to voters, in the form of a ballot measure.

Going up...

Measure L would mandate an $18 minimum wage by 2022 for hospitality workers at certain companies with at least 25 employees. Subsequent annual increases would be tied to inflation or — at minimum — a two percent bump.

If it passes, workers covered by the initiative would be making $3 more per hour in 2022 than workers getting California's statewide $15 minimum wage.

And up...

Disney has said it's not taking an official stance on Measure L. But since the initiative qualified for the November ballot, the company has made some big decisions.

Disney has already agreed to a $15 minimum wage for about 10,000 Disneyland workers starting next year.

Liz Jaeger, a spokeswoman for Disneyland Resort, said in an emailed statement, "We are proud to have implemented a $15 minimum wage for our Cast Members three years ahead of California."

But the raise Disney agreed to doesn't apply to all 30,000 Disneyland workers. And there's no agreement to reach $18 an hour, as outlined in the ballot measure.

The big drop

This summer, Disney dropped another major announcement. The company gave up two lucrative tax incentives with the city of Anaheim.

That's relevant because the ballot measure only covers employers that receive subsidies from the city. According to Disney allies, the move to drop these tax deals exempts Disney from the outcome of the vote.

The switch back

But Measure L proponents say even without those tax incentives, Disney is still getting a city subsidy.

They point to a 1996 bond agreement that funded public improvements, like landscaping and electrical work, near Disney's newer Anaheim theme park California Adventure.

Richard McCracken, an attorney with labor union Unite Here who helped craft the measure, said the bonds also paid for a parking structure — one that's now managed by Disney itself.

These bonds helped Disney develop California Adventure, he said. And they're still being paid off with tax money from Disney.

"So instead of Disney's sales, property and transient occupancy taxes going to the city for police and fire and schools and roads, it's going back to Disney in the form of all of the money that the city raised for California Adventure," McCracken said.

Hairpin turn

Does the bond agreement count as a city subsidy?

Anaheim City Councilwoman Kris Murray asked City Attorney Robert Fabela to prepare a report weighing in on this question for the council's meeting on Tuesday. Fabela's report said the bond agreement does not meet the definition of a subsidy, because Disney isn't getting any tax discount or refund.

"It is the City Attorney's opinion that Measure L would not apply to Disney by virtue of the Bond Transaction," Fabela wrote.

Obstacle ahead

But Measure L proponents say the city attorney doesn't get the last word on this. McCracken said he's prepared to sue if the initiative passes and Disney does not raise wages.

"What counts the most is what a court will think," he said. "Because that's where these things get resolved."

Into the future

Anaheim city staffers said they don't know of any workers who would immediately get raises in 2019 if the measure passes.

But the initiative's opponents and proponents agree on this: Future workers at four Anaheim hotel projects currently in the works would be covered, because the developments are proceeding with the promise of tax rebates from the city.

Whether it covers Disneyland or not, business groups like the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce are telling voters to reject the measure.

"Measure L will cost Anaheim over 3,000 jobs and hundreds of millions in future tax revenue," said Chamber president Todd Ament in an emailed statement. "Measure L helps a few but hurts a lot."

Workers at two large hotels that could open in 2020 — a Westin and a J.W. Marriott — would get the higher minimum wage. Two other hotel projects haven't commenced construction. But if built, they would also be covered by the wage increase. And any restaurant, bar or other business within these hotels could potentially be subject to the initiative as well.