We have a beach of a problem here in Gloucester, it seems. Last week the Gloucester Daily Times [paywall, kinda] informed us we’re paying $45 bucks an hour for firefighters to help on the beaches because we don’t have enough city lifeguarding staff after some students left to go back to school.
Seems wasteful, right? I mean, it’s not the “Outrage! School spends ten percent more on non-toxic chalk!” kind of thing we’re used to from the shouty set, but it’s garnering a bit of attention. (Also, we’re totally kidding about the chalk. Of course teachers have to buy their own classroom supplies, not have them paid for by the town like this is communist Russia.)
Following this revelation, the mayor posted a press release to Good Morning Gloucester letting us know that it was NOT about the insanely low pay our lifeguards get, somewhere around 11 bucks an hour on average. The logic was a little hard to follow:
Gloucester, as well as other communities, faced a shortage of certified lifeguards for summer 2015 and wages was not the issue. This was recognized very early in the preparation for beach season. We advertised aggressively, but simply could not attract a large enough pool of guards.
How was it that low pay was ruled out as a factor for the low rate of applicants? Did prospects email with: “I’m on my university swim team and certified in water rescue, but I just don’t want to be a lifeguard because the idea of hostessing at a restaurant calls to me like the daughters of Achelous…”?
Over at the GDT they talked to a bunch of officials last week who assured readers everything is fine, move right along:
But DPW officials say the $45-an-hour cost for an off-duty firefighter on a detail — compared with the lifeguards’ average $11 hourly wages — isn’t sinking that department’s recreation budget. And fire Chief Eric Smith said the added outside work isn’t affecting fire coverage or other services within his department, which is still short-handed due to a run of firefighter injuries.
Great. So no problem there. Supplementing an eleven dollar an hour position with a worker that bills four times that, from an already short-staffed critical public safety office. Seems like a perfectly sensible use of resources.
I’m sure someone talked to the actual lifeguards to get their perspective. I mean, if someone were to do an actual journalism it would obviously merit an interview with the lifeguards to get the full story, or at least that’s what we remember from the one journalism class we took in college but it was at, like, 8am so we were kind of drowsy most of the time (We still got an A because “journalism class.”)
Wait… hang on a second. Why are lifeguards emailing your beloved The Clam as if we were giving away free zinc oxide cream and aviator-style sunglasses? They seem sort of aggravated. As if they’ve been trying to call attention to this and other problems all along, and had a plan to solve the issue that has been and continues to be roundly ignored. It’s almost like the GDT didn’t even talk to the lifeguards to find out why the city couldn’t get those positions filled. Weird.
But by golly if this ain’t the truth! As it turns out a bunch of lifeguards, who are fairly in-tune with lifeguard-related issues, have been trying to solve this problem all along and have been pretty responsible (that’s kind of their gig, I guess) about it.
Basically Gloucester pays its guards a couple of dollars less per hour than all of the surrounding communities and the beaches on Cape Cod (except Beverly, which is weird). Pay is, as it turns out, an issue.
Starting per-hour wage for lifeguards(in most cases there is a .25-.50 increase per hour with every year’s experience).
- Gloucester $10
- Manchester $12.35
- Beverly $9.50 [WTF Beverly?]
- Rockport $12.34
- Barnstable $12
- Mashpee $13
In the hour or so we spent Googling this we found other communities having similar, but not as acute, issues with staffing, especially on Cape Cod, and the issue is wages. Everyone gets short staffed in the last few weeks, but they are all also having trouble getting applicants for the entire summer. In places where there are beaches there are restaurants and shops and other tourist economy opportunities. College is expensive.
The lifeguards will officially be making minimum wage when Jan 1 rolls around, and that’s for someone who can OPERATE AN AED and DELIVER A BABY. Minimum wage, for training exercises like linking arms together and doing a sweeping walk down the beach in the surf to recover a missing person who is under the water.
The lifeguards we spoke to have some more things to say about the matter. Since they didn’t get a voice anywhere else, we let them have their say here, at The Clam’s Home For Wayward Journalism. Here, listen to them, before they tear their hair out:
– At the beginning of June (before the fiscal year of the city’s budget on July 1st thus giving plenty of time for changes to be made), a head lifeguard put together a new budget that the DPW could use to give the lifeguards pay raises that would be more in line with other cities and the DCR, who hires lifeguards at more than $13 an hour. This, by all accounts, would have made the applicant pool a little deeper than Plum Cove at low tide. Mark Cole, the assistant director of the DPW, encouraged that head lifeguard over the course of several weeks to continue their research, giving off the impression that a change would indeed be made. The plan would cost the city an additional $26,000. The plan was apparently barely recognized by city employees and was immediately shot down. However, the hiring of the EMTs/Paramedics costs the city $35,000.
-The majority of these EMTs are not waterfront certified to any capacity. So despite the fact that they are being used as a bandaid to supplement the lifeguard staff, they are completely free of responsibility for any incidents that occur in the water. Additionally, it is now the tentative plan of the city to add MORE EMTs/Paramedics to the beaches in the upcoming weeks because even more lifeguards are going back to school, fall jobs, etc. so the original $35,000 cost for them is going to increase.
-In the upcoming week, there will be no more than 4 lifeguards per beach. On Thursday September 3rd, there will be 4 lifeguards on Wingaersheek and 3 lifeguards on Good Harbor. On Friday September 4th, there will be 2 lifeguards on Wingaersheek beach (on a day that is dominated by low tide) and 3 lifeguards on Good Harbor beach, when school is not in session here in Gloucester. During the normal season, we have no less than 6 lifeguards per beach, and even those numbers are still tight when there are over four thousand patrons on the beach.
Our head lifeguard who wants to remain anonymous continues:
“We have been ordered to work under these conditions with no choice despite the fact that it GREATLY increases the liability placed on each guard. On Friday at Wingaersheek, for instance, one guard will be personally responsible for approximately 2,500 people. We will receive no extra compensation of any kind for these days. We have children go missing [ed note: on land] every single day that it is busy on the beach, and it can take upwards of 20 minutes to find these kids with a full staff. I don’t want to imagine what it will be like with 2-3 guards instead. I want to stress the fact that this numbers of guards is COMPLETELY unsafe under ANY conditions on the beaches, and this week has been forecasted as 85 degrees and sunny. The people are going to be rolling in. Additionally, strong riptides and other extreme currents have been, and will continue to be present due to the offshore tropical storms. I have lifeguarded for the city for nearly a decade. This has been, without a doubt, the busiest beach season I have ever seen. We would like it to be known that this issue is the sole responsibility of upper management at the DPW; those in charge of the budget. The direct managers of the lifeguard staff, Debbie Kapetanopolous and Joe Lucido, have done everything they can to help the lifeguard staff throughout the summer.”
Because of the staffing problems, many lifeguards worked 6 and 7 days a week out of fear that if they left the beaches understaffed, something tragic would happen. Because there were so few applicants, nearly everyone who applied was given the job regardless of skill level or dedication. They are in charge of thousands of people’s lives and need to make split-second decisions. They are responsible for our kids’ safety. Let’s think about that for a second.
These lifeguards rightly believe they’re being taken advantage of by city administrators, and they’re pissed – and they should be. The Clam humbly suggests we actually listen to them, and not just because those whistles are terrifying, but because these people are smart and dedicated to their jobs, which require them to put their own life at risk for what will soon, by state law, be minimum wage.
The insistence wages aren’t an, if not “the” issue not only denies the fundamental laws of economics, but sidesteps any responsibility for the problems we’re having right now. How many more talented long-time staffers do we need to lose before we get their point?
Or will someone have to die on our beaches to finally hammer it in?