Disney Performers Reinstated After Refusing to Wear “Contaminated” Costumes

Three performers employed at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando caused a stir when they refused to wear their unitards for the Festival of the Lion King show. The employees said the unitards had been tainted by other sweaty garments that had accidentally touched theirs. The dirty costume pieces had been on a rack that was pushed up against where their clean clothing hung.

Their refusal to wear the unitards resulted in one of the shows being canceled, and Disney promptly terminated the three performers. So how does this relate to labor law?

Well, the local Teamsters union representing the workers claimed that Disney violated the parties’ collective bargaining agreement by giving the performers unsanitary clothing. An arbitrator agreed with the performers ruling that Disney violated the union contract by firing the performers. The arbitrator ordered Disney to give the performers their jobs back and awarded them back pay.

It is hard to fathom that employees, who work in a sweaty environment, are allowed to refuse to work because their clothing touched a co-worker’s sweaty clothing. But apparently, pursuant to that particular union contract, this was permitted. This ruling raises an interesting question: under what circumstances can an employee lawfully refuse to perform his job? Here, the touching of one sweaty garment to another was apparently enough. On a construction site, could a laborer refuse to work if a sweaty co-worker’s shirt touched his or her shirt? The take away from this case – make sure your union contract does not have similar language in it.

Matt Austin is a lawyer based in the Columbus, Ohio office of Roetzel & Andress, LPA who limits his practice to representing employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. You can call Matt at (614) 723-2010 or email him at maustin@ralaw.com.