Universal Studios Hollywood Has A Poverty Problem — Among Its Underpaid Staff

Evelyn Arceo works 40-plus hours each week at Universal Studios Hollywood. During her overnight shifts, she prepares the pink-iced Simpsons donuts found in Springfield and the apple pies served at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The single mother, an eight-year veteran of the park, earns $19 an hour. She’s been struggling to pay rent on her one-bedroom apartment in the working-class Panorama City neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley while also juggling bills and feeding and clothing her four kids. Her car was repossessed. Her phone was disconnected. She worries about quarters for the laundromat.

“It’s crazy that I can work 10 hours in a day, including overtime, and still can’t get by,” she says. Yet she knows she’s not alone. Across her workplace, making ends meet — always a challenge when earning an income at or close to minimum wage — has become more difficult in a time of high inflation and Los Angeles County’s affordable-housing crisis. 

“Everybody talks about it, it’s a constant battle, it’s tearing at us mentally,” she says, noting that her colleagues have in recent years begun sharing stories of acute stress. “I’ve had panic attacks myself, numerous times, at work. You think, ‘Am I going to I die here?’ ”

A new UCLA Labor Center study of Universal Studios Hollywood theme park employees reveals that Arceo is no aberration. Its findings reveal widespread poverty. Forty-four percent of the workers reported that they worried about being evicted from their homes, while more than half cut the size of their meals — or skipped them — because they didn’t have enough money for food. (A quarter of the workforce has received benefits via food stamp, food bank or other need-based food donation programs.) “The guests at the park, they see us smiling — they don’t see the stress we’re under because of what we’re paid, what that means,” explains cart cook Anthony “Sarge” Monteverde Jr., who’s spent seven years with the company.

“I was surprised by the findings,” says UCLA Labor Center project director Victor Narro, who led the study team and has conducted research on low-wage work for four decades. “We suspected there were issues. But at these levels? Universal Studios is a major tourism attraction. It generates a lot of wealth. You wouldn’t think these problems would be so prevalent and intense there.” 

NBCUniversal declined a request to speak with executives about employee living standards or to directly address UCLA’s study. The survey featured input from 1,330 park workers drawn from a pair of unions that represent most Universal Studios personnel. IATSE B-192, with about 4,000 members, includes ride operators, tour guides, carnival barkers, and clerks at the main entrance, parking lots and retail storefronts. UNITE HERE Local 11, with approximately 2,000 members, includes cooks, bartenders, baristas, runners and warehouse workers. 

“Universal Studios Hollywood has a successful track record of working with our labor partners to reach comprehensive wage and benefits agreements,” the company said in a statement. “Last fall, we reached an agreement with IATSE Local B-192, which represents employees in similar guest service positions as UNITE HERE Local 11. That agreement was overwhelmingly ratified and included historic increases to wages, taking them above the L.A. County minimum wage, as well as expanded benefits. Last spring, we started negotiations with UNITE HERE Local 11 and since then we have continuously communicated to the union that we are ready to continue negotiations so that we can reach a fair contract for the employees covered by that agreement.” 

In early 2023, Local 11 — a notably aggressive, politically savvy organization known in recent years for making entities from the Dodgers to the Chateau Marmont bend the knee — approached B-192 about partnering on an in-depth look at their members’ financial picture. They collaborated with the venerable UCLA Labor Center, which independently analyzed the data. “We wanted the methodology to be as credible as possible,” says Local 11 co-president Susan Minato. The union has done this before: Frustrated with its workers’ situation at Disneyland, it joined with other labor groups at that park to reach out to the nonprofit L.A. research organization the Economic Roundtable, producing an explosive 2018 survey that resulted in stunned headlines about the otherwise hidden, immiserated side of the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Disney agreed last year to raise its lowest-paid workers’ wages after losing an appeal at the California Supreme Court over its obligation to follow a municipal law that had mandated raises for its “cast members.”

Comcast’s own bullishness on Universal Studios, having doubled down on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s opening in 2016 with Super Nintendo World’s February 2023 debut, helped push the unions to examine their workers’ plight more closely. “It became pretty obvious that the company is willing to invest in this property while not necessarily investing in their employees,” Minato says. Speaking at a media conference Dec. 4, Comcast president Mike Cavanagh referenced the Hollywood park’s upswing since Super Nintendo World’s opening: “We’ve had record quarterly profits each quarter since then.” (Even before this past year, the park had bounced back from the pandemic, drawing 8.4 million visitors in 2022, just short of the 9.2 million it received in 2019, according to data analytics firm Statista.) In January, the company, which sees its amusement destinations as strong profit centers, announced a significant expansion of its Orlando park.

The unions’ efforts are unfolding amid an escalating local homelessness crisis — Los Angeles County’s 2023 unhoused population was 76,000, up from 69,000 the previous year, according to a government count — as well as a restive moment for local labor. B-192’s fellow IATSE locals are preparing for studio negotiations ahead of a contract expiration in July. (NBCUniversal’s campus was a flash point during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes last year; the guilds filed grievances with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming the studio had infringed on their right to picket by obstructing sidewalks.) Meanwhile, Local 11, which told its hospitality workers early in the WGA strike not to cross any picket lines when on-location shoots were being shut down around town, is also in the middle of a rolling work stoppage at high-profile area hotels that has affected the awards season. The Beverly Hilton, for instance, waved the white flag on the eve of the Golden Globe nominations, reaching a tentative agreement that touted more affordable health care and, according to Local 11, “unprecedented wage increases.”

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The UCLA Labor Center study found that a quarter of the Universal Studios Hollywood workforce has received benefits via food stamp, food bank or other need-based food donation programs.

Andia/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

These Universal Studios unions and their members believe that the executives responsible for determining park employees’ pay scale have lacked a ground-level understanding of the grinding, even harrowing daily burden to make ends meet that the company’s low hourly wages placed on these workers — especially in the face of inflation. “There’s been a disconnect,” explains B-192 president Nicole Miller. Now that executives have been presented with the survey’s data, “hopefully that’s changing.”

Even for the unions’ leaders, who are alerted when individual members near a financial edge, the study’s findings were revealing in their synthesis and sweep. For Miller, it was the sheer number of people who existed on the panicked border of homelessness, constantly forced to make dire choices between purchasing groceries and paying rent and other bills. For Minato, “I was just really shocked by how desperate so many people were about food.”

Mario Interiano, a 20-year veteran of the park who works as a cook in the production kitchen, has been intimately familiar with the situation (“You cut a lot of corners”). He contends it’s an added agony to witness underpaid co-workers lose their jobs because they’re hungry. “I’ve seen people get fired because they take food out of the trash to eat it,” he says. “[Management] lets them go because they say that’s still stealing.”

B-192 won significant concessions in its new contract, which was ratified Oct. 11 and went into effect later that month. Previously, four out of five members were making minimum wage. Now almost a quarter of the union’s park workers are eligible for a 23 percent hourly increase, with shorter-tenured staff qualifying for raises between 6.5 and 18 percent. By comparison, in previous negotiation cycles, B-192 has typically won, on average, 3 percent raises. Most B-192 workers are earning $20 under the new deal and will be make at least $23 in 2025. Miller believes the poverty study, of which NBC Universal’s negotiators were aware, was key to making “a difference at the table.” Prior to the contract, the median wage among B-192 workers was $16.90 an hour, which is Los Angeles County’s minimum wage floor; Local 11 workers did 10 cents better.

Employees working the equivalent of full-time hours have been so stretched by their wages that they often don’t feel they can afford to lose any available shifts — even when they’re ill, or there’s a crisis involving a loved one, much less when they just feel they might need a break. “I can’t take a day off, ever, because I have to constantly be saving,” says Summer Molina, whose role as a shift lead involves choreographing the movement of food carts around the park and addressing guest complaints.

The UCLA survey notes that while less than 5 percent of L.A. County residents commute to their jobs by public transportation, 29 percent of the theme park’s employees rely on it. Workers say that an upswing in well-publicized public-safety disturbances on trains and buses, which cause delays while law enforcement personnel intervene, have at times made it more difficult in recent years to arrive at Universal Studios at the start of their shifts. “I’ve seen employees who are terminated because they can’t get to work on time,” says Mandee Swanson, who’s worked as a barista at the park for the past eight years.

Personnel say it’s not unusual to hear about co-workers who can’t afford a place to live. “They say that they have to sleep in their cars,” says Jesse Rodarte, who’s been a cook at the park since 2015 and recently lost his apartment as a result of financial limitations.

Lack of access to proper nutrition is another challenge. The UCLA study found that 62 percent of respondents acknowledged that their households “sometimes or often” couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals within the preceding year. Kim Boyer — who works 40 hours a week at the park as a dresser, which involves taking care of the character costumes, from Scooby-Doo and Gru to Hello Kitty and the Bride of Frankenstein — observes that the company has promoted healthy-living initiatives that the hourly employees are priced out of participating in. These internal communications, which she sees as insensitive, include emails and physical postings in backstage areas. “It’s disheartening when they talk about ‘wellness’ and then they pay you so little,” she says. It should be noted, however, that unionized employees are eligible for health insurance, provided they meet criteria for number of hours worked.

The UCLA Labor Center has made several policy recommendations to address the plight of theme park workers in light of the study’s findings. In addition to suggesting wage increases, proposals include requiring on-site child care facilities (as are found at many large institutions, such as local universities as well as state and federal buildings), mandating a customer surcharge to pay for workforce housing, and conditioning film tax credit subsidies for studios that own theme parks on adherence to certain basic employee economic standards. “Such a policy would ensure that tax credits are not provided to companies which are costing the state additional resources because their lowest-wage employees must rely on food stamps and other forms of public assistance,” the report explains.

Given the terms of B-192’s deal, Minato is expectant that Local 11 will secure similar gains. “That was a big leap,” she says of the fellow union. “We need to make it, too.”

It can’t come soon enough for Evelyn Arceo, the baker and single mother of four children, for whom each paycheck is too little, too late. “Right now, it’s a never-ending story,” she says. “I’m just trying to pull through.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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