Disney workers lose jobs, free college education vanishes

ORLANDO — Madeline “Madi” Portes keeps a bucket list full of things like visiting Paris and taking violin lessons. But No. 1 was always to get her college degree, and she never forgot that as the years went by.

Portes, of Clermont, failed several times to finish her schooling, coming from poor roots and unable to afford her classes as a working adult. Maybe this was her shot at age 61 to finally get it done when Walt Disney Co. announced in 2018 it would pay tuition upfront — and books, too — for its hourly employees.

Known as Disney Aspire, it was one of the most generous employer education programs in the country. Disney vowed to invest $150 million over five years to help lift workers out of poverty by fully funding their education. The program got started as the company reportedly saved at least $1.6 billion in the first year from the GOP corporate tax cuts.

What once felt like winning the lottery is now heartbreak. Walt Disney Co. last month revealed it was ending Aspire for at least some of the 28,000 workers it is laying off across the U.S. because of the coronavirus pandemic. About 15,500 of those employees are in Orlando.

For some, the decision cuts deeper than missing a steady paycheck.

“It’s the loss of hope. It was my very last hope,” Portes said, a part-time Disney World vacation planner working on a degree in legal studies online from Brandman University in California.

About 20,000 part-time and full-time company employees signed up for the education program which lets them study at a list of schools, including the University of Central Florida and Valencia College.

Disney would not say how many students are losing their jobs or how much Disney Aspire will now cost as the company’s theme park division operates with a significantly smaller workforce in a post-coronavirus world.

“While the pandemic has challenged our business and our workforce in immeasurable ways, the Disney Aspire initiative remains important to us,” Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger said in a statement. “Disney Aspire will continue to be available to our eligible employees, including those who are on furlough.”

The hourly Disney workers who will be let go in December and have already enrolled in college degrees can finish this semester. After that, it’s over, leaving many already grappling with how to pay rent and bills to decide: How do I finish my education?

Some additional resources may be available to help them at their schools, financial aid and at CareerSource Central Florida, which received $7 million in federal coronavirus funding in July.

Laid-off employees learning a trade, English or getting their GEDs through Disney Aspire will be allowed to complete their program. At Valencia College alone, 511 Disney Aspire students are studying English as a second language, according to the school.

KEEP FIGHTING

Portes was one of six children raised by a single mother with an elementary school education growing up in a working-class neighborhood in New

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