Steve Lopez: Disneyland workers answer to 'electronic whip'
Anaheim laundry workers monitored by giant big screens aim to keep productivity high as they worry about paying more for healthcare.
In the basements of the Disneyland and Paradise Pier hotels in Anaheim, big flat-screen monitors hang from the walls in rooms where uniformed crews do laundry. The monitors are like scoreboards, with employees' work speeds compared to one another. Workers are listed by name, so their colleagues can see who is quickest at loading pillow cases, sheets and other items into a laundry machine.
It should come as no surprise that at the happiest place on Earth, not all the employees are smiling.
Isabel Barrera, a Disneyland Hotel laundry worker for eight years, began calling the new system the "electronic whip" when it was installed last year. The name has stuck.
"I was nervous," said Barerra, who makes $11.94 an hour, "and felt that I was being controlled even more."
Measuring productivity is commonplace in the hotel industry, and manual tallies were kept in Disney hotels until last year. Disney says the electronic system, which it also uses at its Florida resort, is becoming more common at hotels, though I haven't found much evidence of that.
Employees in the Anaheim hotels are required to key in their ID when they arrive, and from then on, their production speed is displayed for all to see. For instance, the monitor might show that S. Lopez is working at an efficiency rate of 37% of expected production. The screen displays the names of several coworkers at once, with "efficiency" numbers in green for those near or above 100% of the expected pace, and red numbers for those who aren't as fast.
At Paradise Pier, hanging under the monitor is a framed picture of Mickey Mouse on a lunch break at a factory. Judging by his smile, I'd bet his factory doesn't have an electronic whip.
According to Barrera, the whip has led to a sort of competition among workers, some of whom have tried to race to the head of the pack. But that has led to dissension and made other employees worry that a reasonable pace won't be enough to keep the boss happy. Barrera and Beatriz Topete, an official with Unite Here Local 11, said employees have been known to skip bathroom breaks out of fear that their production will fall and managers will demand an explanation. They say they felt bad for a pregnant employee who had trouble keeping up.
I learned about the electronic whip by chance, while visiting the homes of hotel workers to talk about the fact that they have been working without a contract for three years. Since that time, the union and the hotel haven't been able to reach a new agreement. Many of them fear that they'll soon be required to pay higher healthcare premiums or be reduced to part-time status, with no health insurance available.
Roughly 2,100 employees at Disneyland's three resort hotels in Anaheim — the Grand Californian is the third — were covered by the contract that expired in early 2008. Disney officials say that Unite Here Local 11 rejected a very good final offer that included raises, a reduced workload for housekeepers and more healthcare options, and Local 11 is the only one of 31 unions representing Disney workers that hasn't come to terms.
Employees see it differently. They appreciate steady work with a thriving company like Disney, and many of them have 10, 20, even 30 years on the job. They say they don't expect to get rich or even make it solidly into the middle class working at the hotel. Workers have been content with hourly pay in the $8-to-$14 neighborhood in return for mostly free healthcare from a union plan Disney contributes to. Union leaders say workers are prepared to begin paying a portion of their healthcare costs, but not so much that their total compensation takes a big hit.
The Disney contribution to the healthcare plan has not changed since 2007, even as healthcare costs rise. As a result, the union healthcare trust fund is shrinking, union officials said. Disney offered to increase its contribution by 10% over five years, but that didn't cut it, says the union, nor does it put Disney at anywhere near what other hotels pay into healthcare for Local 11 members.
Disney spokeswoman Suzi Brown said the company was offering $5,000 over two years to employees who switch to the company's plan. But clock punchers say the numbers don't add up, that it will still cost them more in the end for equivalent healthcare. So they see Disney's offer as a pay cut at a time when the company is flourishing, with profits in the last fiscal year of roughly $4 billion.
"I would have to divide up the house and rent out this part," Carmen Guzman told me in the living room of her home not far from Disneyland.
Guzman, a 23-year employee who has worked as a housekeeper and hostess, was treated for uterine cancer several years ago. Now she needs regular monitoring and can't risk skimping on healthcare coverage. Nor can she and her husband, a landscaper, afford to pay hundreds of dollars more each month for a medical plan. She and other employees fear Disney will reduce their hours and make them ineligible for coverage, though Brown flatly denied that such a plan was in the works.
"I left my life and my youth in the hotel," Guzman said, telling me that employees are trained to smile and "make the magic happen" for hotel clients, "no matter how dirty they leave the room."
Tom Bray, a bellman at the Disneyland Hotel for 24 years, makes $8.25 an hour, plus tips, which can be unreliable. His wife was recently laid off from her job as a schoolteacher, he said, and they would be hammered if his union healthcare plan starts costing him $240 a month, which is what he projects. If he switches to the company plan, he said, comparable coverage would cost even more.
You try to give customers "that magical experience," Bray said, but Disney "doesn't want to share the profits with you."
By Local 11's math, when Walt Disney ran the company in 1966, he made 108 times as much as one of his hotel housekeepers. Bob Iger, the current chief executive, makes 781 times as much as a housekeeper.
After making $28 million in total compensation last year, Iger's base pay was just increased 25%.
I wonder if there's an electronic whip in Iger's office.