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Workers sue Disney claiming they were fraudulently induced to move to Florida from California

MIKE SCHNEIDER
June 21, 2024

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- Disney workers are suing their employer, claiming they were fraudulently induced to move from California to Florida to work in a new office campus only to have those plans later scrapped amid a fight between the entertainment giant and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

In July 2021, the Disney Parks' chief told workers in California that most white-collar employees would be transferred to the new campus in Orlando to consolidate different teams and allow for greater collaboration.

As many as 2,000 workers in digital technology, finance and product development departments would be transferred to the campus located about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the giant Walt Disney World theme park resort, the company said at the time.

Many workers were reluctant to make the move given their longstanding ties to Southern California and fears of uprooting their families, but Disney encouraged the move by promising a state-of-the-art, centralized workplace and greater affordability in central Florida, according to the class action lawsuit filed earlier this week.

"In sum, employees were incentivized to move through a combination of reward and punishment," the lawsuit said. "An employee could choose to move to a better life in Florida, or alternatively, choose not to move and be terminated by Disney."

By late 2021, as large numbers of Disney employees resisted relocating, Disney told them to put their moving plans on hold. Meanwhile, a group of workers who had decided to relocate, including the lead plaintiffs, Maria De La Cruz and George Fong, sold their California homes with the understanding that the company expected them to make the move, and they purchased homes in central Florida, the lawsuit said.

Fong, who works as a creative director of product design, sold his childhood home which he had inherited.

By June 2022, though, Disney leaders told the California workers that the opening of the new Orlando campus was being delayed and that they could postpone moving until 2026 but were still encouraged to relocate by 2024.

By this time, DeSantis had begun a feud with Disney over the company's public opposition to a Florida law which bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. With the help of Republicans in the Florida Legislature, DeSantis revamped the governing district for Walt Disney World and installed his own appointees to its board in early 2023. Before the DeSantis takeover, the governing district had been controlled by supporters of Disney for more than five decades.

By May 2023, Disney told its workers that the plans to open the $1 billion campus in Orlando were being scrapped and that the workers who had moved to Florida could move back to California if they chose.

According to the lawsuit, many of the workers who had moved to Florida were worried about their job security if they didn't relocate back to California since most of their team members were still there and the company lacked the facilities in Florida to accommodate the teams.

After the decision to pull the plug on the Orlando campus, housing prices surrounding the campus dropped and the price of housing in California continued to increase, just as mortgage interest rates also rose higher in 2023. Fong and De La Cruz, a vice president of product design, have moved back or plan to move back to California and are seeking undisclosed economic and punitive damages.

"Other similarly situated individuals have been forced to purchase or rent less desirable housing upon their return to California," the lawsuit said.

Disney didn't respond to an email seeking comment on Friday.

Earlier this month, Disney and the DeSantis appointees to Disney World's governing district formally ended their fight over control of the government by signing a 15-year development agreement. Under the deal, the DeSantis appointees committed the district to making infrastructure improvements in exchange for Disney investing up to $17 billion into Disney World over the next two decades.

___

Mike Schneider's book, "Mickey and the Teamsters: A Fight for Fair Unions at Disney," was published in October by the University Press of Florida. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter.

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