NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Aurora Toussaint brings her disabled son to the sun-kissed beaches of this Southern California city almost every day in the summer, knowing that the lifeguards who watch from their towers will be there in seconds should anything go wrong.
Yet Toussaint, who quit work and dipped into her retirement early to care for her seizure-prone son, was shocked to learn that most of the fulltime lifeguards in this city earn well over $100,000 in total compensation a year — 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. To think that these are lifeguards! That's more than some doctors make," said Toussaint, 55, as she sat by the beach with her son's therapy dog, Romeo. "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 fulltime 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 (with $400 for sun protection) as the city struggles to rein in pension costs.
The ensuing debate over the merits of having lifeguards as well-paid as some CEOs has divided this wealthy coastal 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!").
The swell of anger from beachgoers and budget-watchers alike has blindsided the lifeguards, who have for years enjoyed the prestige of their jobs in an ocean-centric town that banks on summer tourism. Now, as the pressure mounts, they are balking at their portrayal as suntanned slackers lounging in beach towers as the surf rolls in.
Those whose salaries are in question point 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.
Many 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, said Brent Jacobsen, president of the Lifeguard Management Association, the lifeguards' union.
"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."
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. Adding in overtime, special compensation, pension, medical benefits, life insurance and other pay, two battalion chiefs cleared more than $200,000 in 2010, while the lowest-paid officer made more than $98,000.
All lifeguards received $400 in sunscreen allowance and two cleared $28,000 apiece in overtime and night duty pay.
Newport Beach's lifeguards can also 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 the winter the fulltime lifeguards stayed busy answering phones and painting guard towers. "I think people are looking for elected officials to be more fiscally conservative. We love lifeguards, but that's not the issue."
In budget talks, City Manager David Kiff proposed converting four of the fulltime positions to part-time status, a move the full city council is expected to review in the coming weeks.
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, said Jacobsen. Three fulltime guarding positions that are now vacant because of retirements could also be eliminated, with staffing shifts among the remaining group to cover all duties, he said.
He acknowledged that the current pension benefit now seems excessive given the recession.
"It was reasonable at the time. When we were negotiating, people were making such ridiculous amounts of money on the real estate market and we don't get those big jumps in salary that the private sector does," he said.
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. What that will look like remains to be seen, however.
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, where swimmers and surfers flock each summer, 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, according to the 2009 state data, the most recent available.
"We compete for those jobs and we are in line with what they pay those folks," Kiff said. "You can go up to LA or San Diego and you're going to find folks who do the same for the same pay or sometimes higher....I think people confuse professional guarding with the tower guards and they think, 'Oh my gosh, how can a guy in red shorts sitting in a tower earn that?' We're not talking about those individuals."
Newport Beach attracted more than 7 million beachgoers last year during a slow summer of cool temperatures and lackluster surf. Lifeguard supervisors nevertheless 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 year in 2009 and 2010.
Still, for some, statistics will never justify such compensation.
Leonard Musgrave, a former oil company employee, was so outraged that he wrote a letter to the local paper, The Orange County Register, earlier this month inquiring why the city didn't simply put up a sign reading, "Swim at your own risk." The 69-year-old retiree said he isn't swayed by the lifeguards' responsibilities or years of service.
"I supervised 13, 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. That's a good job."