Newport Beach, Calif. – The lucrative world of lifeguarding has gotten a little less lucrative in one upscale California beach city.
The Newport Beach City Council on Tuesday night voted 6-1 for a new contract that would lower pension benefits for fulltime lifeguards who have come under fire for their hefty compensation packages during tough economic times.
A public outcry emerged last month after budget negotiations revealed most earned more than $100,000 a year in total compensation. 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, more than half of the 13 fulltime lifeguards cleared $100,000, while 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.
Fulltime lifeguards currently have a contract that makes them eligible for retirement at age 50 with 30 years of service. They would receive 90 percent of their salary.
Fulltime lifeguards in Newport Beach were facing the possibility of layoffs in the proposed 2011-12 budget, so they offered to trade pension cuts in exchange for saving jobs. Under the new contract, newly hired employees would have a pension worth up to 50 percent less. The guards also would increase the amount they pay toward their pensions, from 3.5 percent to 9 percent.
The lifeguards whose salaries were in question pointed out that 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 fulltime 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.
In a statement on the Newport Beach website, the city said it believes the total compensation for lifeguards is too high and officials have tried to address that by reducing its pension costs. But in terms of salaries, the city said its "lifeguards are paid and compensated in a manner in line with professional lifeguarding in Southern California."
In Los Angeles County, where guards patrol beaches from Santa Monica to Torrance, lifeguard salaries are fairly comparable, according to a public salary database on the state controller's website, but the retirement benefit is less. Staff who retire at age 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 age 55, and get 75 percent of their salary with 30 years of service.
"Fulltime professional lifeguarding is a well-respected profession that requires education, extensive training and experience," Newport Beach said.
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. Tower guards intervened more than 76,000 times to warn people of rip currents or high surf. Two people died each year in 2009 and 2010.