Even before I became editor of Aquatics International, I had great respect for lifeguards. I took a junior lifeguarding class back in my hometown, and even thought about becoming a guard.
In my role at the magazine, I’ve developed even more respect
for guards. Current and former lifesavers are some of the most
well-trained, passionate and devoted people I’ve ever met.
They are asked to shoulder the ultimate responsibility: life
itself. They also happen to be some of the lowest paid professional
rescuers on the planet.
So imagine my surprise, quickly followed by consternation, when I
saw a Tweet about union lifeguards making more than $200,000 in
Newport Beach, Calif. On the face of it, the figure sounds
outrageous. And that’s exactly the point.
The group behind this lifeguard pay smear is the very same group
that went after teachers in Wisconsin. Their goal is to break
unions, and they’ll use whatever disinformation and
conflation they can to sway public opinion and dupe the media. They
are called the Americans for Prosperity. In this case, it’s
the Americans for Prosperity-California. Both groups are heavily
funded by the Koch brothers, a now-notorious duo known for
funneling millions into anti-union candidates and efforts
In the case of lifeguards, the AFPC has produced a YouTube video
that paints guards as enjoying the “Lifestyles of the Rich
and Famous.” A “liberty” blog that parrots much
of the video’s propaganda ran in the Orange County Register
and was quickly picked up by NBC’s “Today Show”
and MSNBC with the headline, “Dude, wanna make some big
bucks? Try lifeguarding.” After reading that article,
you’d think lifeguards nationwide are working on their tans
and getting rich — they even have sunscreen allowances!
The truth is far less sexy. Chris Brewster, head of the United States Lifesaving
Association, knows a thing or two about beach guarding. He
wrote an excellent response to the pay smear campaign in our new
LifeguardLink group on AI Connect. I urge everyone to read it.
In part, Brewster points out that the guards in question are
full-time due to the year-round nature of Newport Beach, which is
also the body surfing capital of the world. These full-time guards
hold many of the same responsibilities as their full-time police
and fire equivalents, but they typically get paid less.
Despite what the AFPC implies, the salaries are not the result of
greedy unions. In California, it’s illegal for public
employees to strike. Instead, elected officials have set the wages.
Oh, and that $200,000 wage? It includes benefits and overtime. It
represents full compensation of just two of the city’s
You won’t see many of these facts in the mainstream media.
What you will see is a conflation of part-time seasonal guard pay
with the pay of full-time supervisory lifeguards. Indeed, the final
line of the MSNBC article smugly points out that the average
lifeguard salary nationwide is about $20,000. This leads to a
connection in the public’s mind between overpaid public
employees and aquatics.
At a time when many aquatics facilities are fighting for their
lives, this is the last thing we need. It’s up to you to set
the record straight with your patrons before your guards and your
facility get smeared, too.