Disney World, Actors’ Equity Reach Deal to Return to Work, but COVID-19 Testing Continues to Prove Contentious

Disney Castle

Actors’ Equity Association, the union that represents more than 51,000 actors and stage managers, including around 750 Disney live performers, has reached an agreement with the Walt Disney Company for its performers to return to work at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., as the company sets up a COVID-19 testing site outside of the park. But even that memorandum of understanding has prompted further points of contention between the conglomerate and the actors’ union.

“We have been consistent that testing is an important part of ensuring a safe workplace for Equity performers, and today, I’m pleased to see that Disney World has agreed,” said Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity Association in a statement. “With the news that Disney will make testing available for Equity performers and others in the park, I’m happy to announce that Equity’s executive committee has signed a memorandum of understanding with Disney for Equity performers to return.”

But Disney disputes the notion that it is offering testing as a direct result of Equity’s negotiations with the theme park operator and media conglomerate.

“We have offered the location to help with community testing and any suggestion that this has been done as a result of any one union is unfounded,” a Disney spokesperson told Variety. “The Florida Division of Emergency Management will operate the location which is available to Cast Members and their immediate families as well as Florida residents. Our actions support all cast and our community at large.”

The testing facility, which opens on Aug. 14 outside of the Disney Maingate Complex in Kissimmee, Fla., will offer free testing to anyone who signs up, not just Disney World “cast members,” as theme park employees are called.

“We are just happy that space is being made available for testing and members’ concerns have been met,” said an Equity spokesperson in response to Disney’s statement.

At the Disney employee-specific site disneycovid19test.com, Walt Disney World employees as well as their family members can sign up for coronavirus testing. They are to use a self-administered nasal swab while supervised by medical personnel and remain in their cars. Those who are tested will be notified of results in three to five business days.

Coronavirus testing had been an issue of contention for Equity, and the union’s performers did not return to work after Disney World reopened in July. The union filed a grievance against Disney, alleging that the media and entertainment conglomerate was “retaliating” against Equity members by rescinding notices that had called 220 of the union’s 750 or so performers back to work.

Disney responded that the seven unions representing 48,000 other workers had signed agreements to return to work when the Florida theme park reopened, and was exercising its right to open without Equity performers.

On any given day, in a pre-COVID-19 state of operations, there would have been up to 20-30 different shows at Disney World that typically employ Equity performers.

Now that Actors’ Equity has come to an agreement with Disney, the ball is in Disney World’s court to send performers notices to return to work.

While Disney has previously evaluated the idea of testing theme park employees, at the time of reopening it had made the decision to focus on other prevention measures such as reduced attendance levels, social distancing, masks, increased cleaning, and temperature checks. Epidemiologist Dr. Anne Rimoin, who had spoken to Variety last month about Disney World reopening, said that “testing, and being able to have access to testing, is critical,” but that in practice, testing can be a complicated task when taking into account asymptomatic transmission and testing wait times.