LOS ANGELES -- As lifeguards begin their busy summer season, the bronzed guardians of California's beaches find themselves at the unlikely center of the battle over costly public pensions.
The six-figure salaries of some full-time municipal lifeguards have fueled talk radio segments and blog comments in recent weeks, with some commentators expressing surprise at the pay for those who patrol the beaches.
For local government, the larger concern is over the pensions that lifeguards receive when they retire. Most full-time lifeguards get the most generous public retirement plan -- the same "public safety" pensions received by police officers and firefighters. Lifeguards argue that they deserve the benefits because they put their lives at risk, not just from rescuing beachgoers but because of an elevated risk of skin cancer from years under the sun.
But a growing number of cities -- including Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and San Diego -- are demanding that lifeguards cut their pensions. Solana Beach has already taken action, eliminating the most generous plan, which made lifeguards eligible for a pension worth up to 90 percent of their largest paycheck at age 50. Pensions for new hires top out at about one-third less.
Newport Beach Councilwoman Leslie Daigle said the city can no longer afford paying them the same retirements as police and firefighters. One Newport Beach lifeguard recently retired at 51 with an annual pension of $108,000, plus medical benefits, she said.
"They are more than generously compensated for a highly desirable job," Daigle said. "We would find qualified applicants for lifeguarding without" the top-end benefits.
In fall contract negotiations, Newport Beach will ask public safety workers to accept a pension worth up to 50 percent less for new hires. The city also wants lifeguards to pay 9 percent of their salary toward pensions instead of the 3.5 percent they pay now, said Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff.
Daigle said lifeguards perform an important job, but their compensation and benefits have spiraled out of control over the decades, with one city after another moving to match compensation in other cities.
"It's a self-inflating bubble because they only compared themselves to other jurisdictions," she said. "Cities need to test the market outside public agencies for comparison."
Lifeguards make up a tiny piece of beach city payrolls. But they have become a symbol of excess as cities move to reduce ever-increasing employee pension costs, which are causing major financial problems both at the local and state level.
City officials said the savings by cutting lifeguard pensions will likely be modest, but they said it's an important one in bringing generous retirement packages into line with their shrinking budgets.
California Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing a number of reforms for state workers, including requiring workers to pay their full share of pension costs and offering new hires the option of a 401(k)-style plan instead of a traditional pension.
Lifeguards have been categorized as "safety" workers for decades, shortly after the profession was formalized with required training and skills testing in the 1960s.
In California, lifeguards are required to have first aid and CPR training and, once they become full time, they often must get certified as an emergency medical technician and take classes in specialized skills, such as rescue boat operations and hazardous materials handling.
Statewide, nearly 400 lifeguards are employed year-round by the state and municipalities. But each summer, agencies hire thousands of seasonal lifeguards who staff the beaches while permanent lifeguards manage and handle administrative duties. The seasonal lifeguards receive significantly less pay and benefits, but the jobs are considered entry points to full-time guard positions.
Year-round guards also operate dispatch centers and drive rescue boats. Many are certified as emergency medical technicians, as are firefighters.
Municipal lifeguards start at around $60,000 a year, and pay escalates up to $115,000 at the supervisory level. Pensions are based, in part, on a lifeguard's final salary. In Newport Beach, the pay is even better, with some senior supervisors earning $150,000 a year, including overtime.
Lifeguards say that their profession can be as dangerous as law enforcement and firefighting, and they should also be rewarded for the high risk.
"I've had multiple skin cancers removed. We're driving under crumbling cliffs every day ... at any given second they can collapse. We're risking our lives," said Lt. Jason Shook, 43, one of Solana Beach's three full-time lifeguards.
Skin cancer claims the lives of career guards during retirement, union representatives say, although no statistics are kept. Many agencies buy guards sunscreen, or give them a stipend. Newport Beach gives a $400 annual "sun protection allowance" for full-time guards.
Besides taking a beating from the sun, guards can break legs or tear ligaments running into the water, and have to negotiate massive waves, like those that rise up at the infamous Wedge in Newport Beach.
Newport is not the only beach city cracking down on lifeguard pensions.
Huntington Beach officials have proposed a less expensive formula for new full-time guards, while existing employees would be able to keep their plans. Such a two-tier pension system is becoming increasingly popular around California as a way to cut government costs without slashing the benefits of existing employees.
San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, along with council colleagues Kevin Faulconer and Carl DeMaio, recently unveiled a ballot proposal that would place lifeguards and firefighters, along with most other city departments, into 401(k)-style retirement plans.
Police would keep traditional pensions. Backers are hoping to qualify the initiative for the June 2012 ballot.
(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.
Visit the Los Angeles Times, www.latimes.com/.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.