Full-time lifeguards in Newport Beach, Calif., are fending off complaints that they are overcompensated after a city budget report revealed almost all of them made more than $100,000 in total compensation last year.
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Aurora Toussaint brings her son to the sun-kissed beaches of Southern California’s Newport Beach almost every day in the summer, knowing the lifeguards will be there in seconds should anything go wrong.
Yet Toussaint was shocked to learn most of the full-time lifeguards in the city earn much more than $100,000 in total compensation a year — including salary, overtime and benefits — more than Toussaint made in her previous life as a nurse and more than she believes is right in an economy where pink slips have become common fare.
“When I first heard that, I was amazed at how much they make. … That’s more than some doctors make,” said Toussaint, 55, who retired early to care for her disabled, seizure-prone son. “It does kind of make me feel like, ‘Gosh, maybe I should be a lifeguard.’ “
That’s the kind of reaction Newport Beach’s 13-member full-time lifeguard crew has drawn this month, since the local newspaper editorialized about lifeguard salaries, benefits and overtime pay that in at least two instances top $200,000 as the city struggles to rein in pension costs.
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Base salaries for Newport Beach lifeguards range from $58,000 for the lowest-paid officer to $108,492 for the top-paid battalion chief, according to a 2010 city report on lifeguard pay.
With overtime only added in, more than half of the 13 cleared $100,000 and the rest made between $59,500 and $98,500. Adding in pension contributions, medical benefits, life insurance and other pay, two battalion chiefs earned more than $200,000 in 2010, while the lowest-paid officer made more than $98,000.
All lifeguards received $400 sunglass allowances, and two cleared $28,000 apiece in overtime and night-duty pay.
The ensuing debate over the lifeguards’ pay has divided the wealthy city, spawned a pro-lifeguard Facebook page and created headlines as far away as England: “Time for a Career Change? California’s Baywatch lifeguards paid up to $210,000 per year!”
Lifeguards are balking at their portrayal as sun-tanned slackers lounging in beach towers as the surf rolls in.
Those whose salaries are in question point out they hold management roles, have decades of service and are considered public-safety employees under the fire department, the same as fire captains and battalion chiefs. The full-time guards train more than 200 seasonal lifeguards who make between $16 and $22 an hour, run a junior-lifeguard program that brings in $1 million a year and oversee safety on nearly seven miles of sand.
And when the surf is really pumping — as it was week, with 20-foot wave faces at the infamous Wedge — the supervisory lifeguards are just as busy as the seasonal staff with dangerous rescues, said Brent Jacobsen, president of Lifeguard Management Association, the lifeguards’ union.
Many full-time officers began as seasonal guards and worked their way into management roles and must stay certified as instructors in an array of advanced emergency, scuba and rescue techniques, Jacobsen said.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of disinformation out there. People get this idea that we’re talking about 17-year-old kids in lifeguard towers making $200,000, and that’s not correct,” he said. “We’re professional-level. Lifeguarding here is different than any other place in the entire world.”
Newport Beach’s lifeguards can retire at 50 with 90 percent of their salary with 30 years of service, according to state data.
“Because of the compensation, lifeguarding has evolved from a brief and youthful interlude into a career, and that’s probably what’s most shocking,” said Councilwoman Leslie Daigle, who added that in winter, the full-time lifeguards stay busy answering phones and painting guard towers.
In budget talks, City Manager David Kiff proposed converting four full-time positions to part-time status, an idea the city council is expected to review.
The lifeguards’ union is trying to avoid the reductions by striking a deal that could see them increase their pension contribution from 3.5 percent to 9 percent annually, while instituting a new pension tier for future hires, Jacobsen said.
He acknowledged the current pension benefit seems excessive given the recession, adding: “It was reasonable at the time.”
Kiff believes the salaries the city’s lifeguard supervisors earn are appropriate given the competitive job market for top-tier lifeguards in Southern California, but would like to see the pension scaled back.
In Los Angeles County, where guards patrol beaches from Santa Monica to Torrance, lifeguard salaries are comparable, according to a public-salary database on the state controller’s website, but the retirement benefit is less. Staff who retire at 50 with 30 years of service receive only 60 percent of their salary.
In San Diego, lifeguards make roughly the same salary range but must retire later, at 55, and get 75 percent of their salary with 30 years of service.
Newport Beach attracted more than 7 million beachgoers last year, and lifeguard supervisors oversaw 2,190 water rescues and more than 5,000 medical-aid calls, while tower guards intervened more than 76,000 times to warn people of rip currents or high surf. Two people died each in 2009 and 2010.
For some, statistics will never justify such compensation.
Leonard Musgrave, 69, a former oil-company employee, wrote a letter to the local newspaper, The Orange County Register, this month asking why the city didn’t simply put up a sign reading, “Swim at your own risk.” The retiree said he isn’t swayed by the lifeguards’ responsibilities or years of service.
“I supervised 13 (or) 14 engineers when I was working, and I was making $111,000 when I retired three years ago with an MBA and a technical-engineering degree,” said Musgrave, who doesn’t have a pension. “I mean, come on! All you have to do is look at good-looking women at the beach. I mean, they shouldn’t even get paid! I’d do it for 10 percent of that pay.”