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Disabled Worker in Yosemite Says He's 'Going Broke Fast'

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El Capitan in the Yosemite National Park. “I made more friends over the past year than I did the eight years I lived in Sacramento,” said James Thomspon, who works for for Aramark in Yosemite National park, the company operating Yosemite’s hotels and restaurants. (Mark Ralston/Getty Images)

James Thompson thinks the only reason he got hired to work at Yosemite National Park was because he was blessed with a phone interview.

"My employer couldn’t see my wheelchair," he said. "He couldn’t see my service dog or the backpack on my back."

Thompson, 40, has cerebral palsy. By the time he applied to work for Aramark, the company operating Yosemite’s hotels and restaurants, he’d been homeless for months, living out of his storage unit in Rancho Cordova, California. His $943 Supplemental Security Income (SSI) check — the maximum amount allotted to low-income, disabled people — didn’t cover his basic living costs in Sacramento. The job at Yosemite, with its housing subsidized by the National Park Service, felt like a chance to start over.

It was. Outside his window, he could see evergreen trees and rivulets of water slide down granite walls. He loved learning about the park, studying the maps and memorizing the trails. At his job at the tour desk, Thompson was soon able to direct hikers and tell photographers when the sunlight hit the panoramic trail. For the first time in his life, he felt like a part of a community, one that really valued him.

"I made more friends over the past year than I did the eight years I lived in Sacramento," Thomspon said.


When COVID-19 hit, Yosemite closed on March 20. While 300 park workers were allowed to stay in their housing rent free, they were no longer getting paid. This was hard on all employees, but especially on Thompson.

Thompson doesn’t qualify for unemployment. Instead, he, along with nearly 41,000 disabled workers in California, rely on monthly disability benefits. What makes an unexpected job loss for this demographic even more difficult is that these benefits are based on one’s income from two months prior; so for every dollar Thompson earned, his disability check was reduced by 50 cents. For the entire month of April, he had $300 to live on. “I’m going broke fast,” he said.

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For the past few weeks, Thompson has been losing large swaths of hair. His doctor says it's a sign of stress and malnourishment. His immune system is half as strong as it should be.

Food is uniquely expensive for Thompson. He used to rely on the reduced-price meals Aramark served during shifts, but now with the hotels and kitchens closed, that’s not an option. The company is giving their employees $5 vouchers for food, but that money will come out of their paychecks when they start working again. His only option is to wheel himself a mile to the village store, priced for tourists, where a pack of chicken breasts costs $20. Cooking it up in the communal kitchen that’s not adapted for a person in a wheelchair can be dangerous.

“I don't want to wear a welding mask just to make a stir fry,” he said. “But the stove burners are up to my face.”

Curry Village housing in Yosemite Valley, where Thompson has lived for the past year. (Courtesy of justinm)

Thompson realizes Yosemite isn’t the safest place long term for him. But that’s not his main focus. When the park reopens, which his employers say may be as soon as late May, he desperately wants to get back to work. He is estranged from his family, and he can’t afford to pay market rent. If he loses his job and his housing, he will have nowhere to go.

But Thompson is preparing for the worst. On May 8, Aramark laid off an estimated 90 shuttle bus drivers, giving those living in the park two weeks to vacate their homes. He fears he’s next.

On his Facebook page, Thompson wrote: “I want my friends outside of Yosemite to know that the chance of me needing to relocate due to a permanent layoff is extremely high as of today, and I would not have the traditional 30 day notice when it happens.”

Aramark employees in Yosemite recently published an online petition to advocate for their housing rights.

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