Senator Elizabeth Warren slammed Disney over decisions she says prioritized shareholders and CEO pay packages over the well-being of its workers.
Disney, which is laying off 28,000 employees in the United States, made “short-sighted” business decisions that depleted the storied company’s capital cushion, Warren said in a letter released Wednesday.
In particular, Warren called out Disney (DIS) for “showering its top executives with over-the-top compensation packages and salaries” as well as blowing through a staggering $47.9 billion on share buybacks between 2009 and 2018. Share buybacks are a common, yet controversial, way for companies to reward shareholders by returning excess cash.
“It appears that — prior to, and during the pandemic — Disney took good care of its top executives and shareholders — and is now hanging its front-line workers out to dry,” Warren wrote in the letter.
The company has previously described the layoffs as a “difficult” decision caused by the “prolonged impact” of the pandemic on its theme parks and other businesses. Disney has also indicated it hopes to eventually rehire workers.
In a statement, Disney said Senator Warren’s letter contains “a number of” unspecified “inaccuracies.”
“We’ve unequivocally demonstrated our ability to operate responsibly with strict health and safety protocols in place at all of our theme parks worldwide, with the exception of Disneyland Resort in California,” Disney said. The company added that California “has prevented us from reopening even though we have reached agreements with unions representing the majority of our cast members that would get them back to work.”
The Warren letter is the latest example of tough criticism aimed at Disney’s spending priorities during the pandemic.
In April, Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of Walt Disney’s brother, expressed dismay at the company’s decision to furlough thousands of low-paid workers after paying executives millions of dollars.
“WHAT THE ACTUAL F***?????” Abigail Disney tweeted.
Last week, billionaire Dan Loeb called on Disney to scrap its $3 billion annual dividend. Loeb, an activist investor who leads hedge fund Third Point, urged Disney to shift the resources to the company’s fast-growing streaming service.
In May, Disney announced it wouldn’t pay a dividend for the first half of its fiscal year because of the disruption caused by the pandemic. The company has not said whether it will pay a dividend for the second half of the year.
Pay practices under scrutiny
Warren gave Disney credit for continuing to provide health care benefits to furloughed workers over the past six months. However, she argued that in the years prior to the crisis Disney “prioritized the enrichment of executives and shareholders,” decisions that “weakened Disney’s financial cushion and ability to retain and pay its frontline workers amid the pandemic.”
For instance, the letter said Disney paid more than $338 million in total compensation to its top 20 executives in the three year prior to the health crisis. Warren cited a summary of SEC filings made by Disney.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek agreed earlier this year to take a 50% pay cut and executive chairman Bob Iger agreed to forgo the remainder of his salary.
However, Warren said that base salaries represent a small portion of Disney executives overall compensation, which typically includes lucrative stock rewards.
In August, Deadline reported that Disney ended temporary salary cuts that had been imposed on thousands of executives because of the pandemic. Warren demanded to know whether that report is accurate.
“Thousands of laid off employees will now have to worry about how to keep foot on the table as executives begin receiving hefty paychecks again,” the senator wrote.
Theme park layoffs in California and Florida
Like other entertainment companies, Disney’s theme park business has been slammed by the pandemic. Disney World, the company’s Florida resort, shut down in March and began a phased reopening in July. However, Disneyland and California Adventure remain shuttered indefinitely because of the state’s health restrictions.
“As you can imagine, a decision of this magnitude is not easy,” Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, wrote in a memo to about the mass layoffs. “We’ve cut expenses, suspended capital projects, furloughed our cast members while still paying benefits, and modified our operations to run as efficiently as possible, however, we simply cannot responsibly stay fully staffed while operating at such limited capacity.”
In the company’s public statement on the layoffs, D’Amaro partially blamed California’s “unwillingness to lift restrictions that would allow Disneyland to reopen.”
In her letter to Disney, Warren took issue with the company’s comments on California.
“While your company has blamed your decision to lay off thousands of workers on California public health measures, which were implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and save lives,” Warren wrote, “nearly 6,400 of the employees you laid off are actually in Florida.”
Warren cited a September 29 letter written by a Disney executive to Florida regulators warning of layoffs in the state that will begin in early December.
Warren requested that “no later than” October 27 Disney provide answers to a series of questions, including whether the company will provide health care coverage to laid off workers and how it decided which employees to let go.
CNN Business’ Frank Pallotta contributed to this report.