ORLANDO, Fla. – A crowd that gathered to watch one of the popular Festival of the Lion King shows at Disney’s Animal Kingdom left disappointed one evening after it was abruptly canceled.
Backstage, three performers had refused to don their animal costumes.
Their unitards had been tainted, the employees argued, by other workers’ sweaty garments that accidentally touched theirs. The dirty costume pieces had been on a rack that they said had somehow been pushed up against where their clean clothes hung.
Walt Disney World fired the performers shortly after the canceled show, and now they are fighting to get their jobs back. The Teamsters union that represents them is bringing the issue in front of a federal arbitrator later this year. The union argues Disney violated its contract by providing unsanitary clothing.
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“We felt the unitards that were clean had absorbed sweat from the costumes that were already there,” said Doug Biederman, one of the performers. “We said, ‘We don’t know what to do. Obviously wearing these costume pieces isn’t an option because they’re soiled. They’re not wearable.’”
Disney said it disagrees with the assertions and will make its case to the arbitrator. The company would not provide further details, saying it does not comment on pending arbitration.
It may seem like a petty fight, but the dispute puts Disney in a tough situation, University of South Carolina hospitality instructor Scott Smith said.
“If the union wins, the union gets more power,” he said. “They can basically start to say, ‘Well, here, we’re going to … allow cast members to stop the show if all these things are not perfect.’”
The company’s view is likely that “if we start letting these people call the shots and say what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable now, we’re over a barrel,” he said. “Anybody can shut down a show because one of the costumes had sweat on it or whatever.”
Though this was a one-time incident, Teamsters recording secretary and business agent Donna-Lynne Dalton likened it to a controversy that arose in 2001 over Disney’s practice of making workers share bike shorts and tights. In a contract agreement reached that year, Disney gave in and allowed each worker to have his or her own set.
In the current case, the workers said they feared getting a rash or skin infection.
That could happen from wearing someone else’s clothes that haven’t been laundered, said Dr. Cameron Rokhsar, assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. If the costume merely came into contact with someone else’s sweaty clothes, he said, “I think the possibility exists, although it’s remote.”
But with so much attention paid to communicable diseases right now because of Ebola, Smith said the union might have an advantage.
“If I’m on the union side, I’m starting to think Ebola and all these issues, bodily fluids and all that – I feel like I have a really strong position now that people are really freaked out about that kind of thing,” he said. “I think the union sees this as an opportunity to make some headway.”
Performers can get clean unitards for each show. But they reuse their items such as headpieces, collars and skirts. Those pieces had become wet with perspiration and were drying in the sun, to be used again by the performers who had already worn them.
The costume parts get drenched because, “We sweat like crazy,” said Drew Pearson, one of the fired workers. “It’s such a high-intensity show.”
One day in June, workers moved the used costume parts inside when it rained. Performers said they found the dirty garments pushed up against the clean ones.
Pearson and Biederman said they asked for the unitards to be washed but that didn’t happen.
Managers had said the contact was minor and the three performers’ clothes were in acceptable condition.
Pearson said one manager suggested spraying his unitard with Febreze and told him, “This is a make-it-work moment.”
Other performers were willing to go onstage either because they had outfits that hadn’t touched the used costumes or didn’t think the contact was worth making a fuss over.
The union is seeking back pay and reinstatement. Pearson, 25, and Biederman, 24, are working elsewhere but would like to return to Disney. The third worker declined to be interviewed.
“I see my career dancing with Walt Disney World,” Biederman said. “It’s amazing it’s come to this point over something as avoidable as that.”