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Lifeguard Pay Raises Advance in Unanimous 6-0 Vote

After hearing more than an hour of testimony from lifeguards and their supporters, the Budget and Finance Committee today recommended approval of funding for the ocean safety labor contract by a unanimous 6-0 vote.

The county’s 55 lifeguards are part of Bargaining Unit 14, a newly authorized statewide negotiating entity of the Hawaiʻi Government Employees Association. The contract, based on a binding arbitration decision, includes a 16% salary increase for ocean safety officers across the state.

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Mel Puu, State Director for Bargaining Unit 14, and city and county ocean lifeguard testified on Maui today saying that the 16% raise would still leave ocean safety personnel in Hawaiʻi “far behind the rest of the nation,” which he said is at 24% above what Hawaiʻi lifeguards currently get paid.

“Needless to say, all the members in order to further their career and even just keep their job, it’s imperative that we get this raise as a starting platform for our initial contract for the bargaining unit.”

Puu said Hawaiʻi loses somewhere between 20-23% of ocean safety officers statewide due to the low pay.  “They opt to go to higher paying jobs that they really don’t want; and the lifeguards that stay, they do it not for the pay, but for the satisfaction of saving a life.  Although the pay is an important part in just survival with families and the expenses of living in Hawaiʻi,” said Puu.

Keola Brown, ocean safety captain of the North Shore on Maui, and 14 year veteran of the department said, “I just want to be compensated fairly.  We risk our lives every day.  It’s just because it’s what’s in our heart and what we love to do.  But we really would like to be compensated so that we can support our families and keep doing what we’re doing.”

According to Capt. Brown, lifeguards responded to 32 rescues in a single day at Kanahā Beach Park in Central Maui.  “That was kite surfers and wind surfers where were going out in about 25′-30′ surf.  They were unable to get back to shore on their own power, so our jet ski was running pretty much all day long rescuing people.  At the end of the day we clocked in 32 people that we rescued in that day.”

He said the reward is those who are rescued coming back and saying thank you.  “They come back with their loved ones and their kids, and they’re just so grateful for what we do.  I think that’s what keeps us going even though we’re underpaid, I think that’s the spark that keeps us going,” said Brown.

Fellow lifeguard, Howard MacPherson who is fairly new to the ocean safety department said he’s already done a half a dozen rescues in Mākena.  “I was there the day we did three major spinal rescues in one day.  It can go from being calm one minute to just a lot (of activity) the next second.”

Maui County estimates beach attendance last year at more than 3.3 million people. Maui ocean safety officers took more than 163,000 preventive actions and performed 438 rescues [1] and 5 resuscitations.

Dr. Monty Downs, ER physician on the island of Kauaʻi and president of the non-profit Kauaʻi Lifeguard Association traveled to Maui to speak in support of the resolution.  “As an ER physician, I love lifeguards.  I get to experience, very intimately, the work that they do, the people that they bring in that are alive.  Actually most of the people that are rescued don’t have to come in–they’re released at the beach, but I get to see the ones that were in very critical danger that require CPR.  Without the lifeguards, they wouldn’t have made it to the ER alive.”

“I’ve seen from both sides over the 40 years that I’ve been an ER doctor some people that didn’t make it; but the ones I’d really like to focus on so that I continue the strength to do the work that I do–trying to prevent drownings–I wanted to focus on the incredible rescues that lifeguards make (and I also have to mention that quite often lay-people make) in our waters,” said Dr. Downs.

Dr. Downs said the resolution relating to the arbitration award for lifeguards will provide a “long overdue” pay raise to lifeguards around the state.  “This is an agreement that was negotiated between Bargaining Unit 14 and the HGEA.  It turns out that even after it was negotiated, that counties can individually question whether they’re going to support this agreement.”

Prior to today’s testimony, Maui was the only county in the state that still had not come out in support of the arbitration award.

“The Maui Council showed that they were having questions about supporting it, and therefore I came over from Kauaʻi today offering testimony asking for the Maui County Council to love and support lifeguards the way that I do.”

According to a council press release, councilmembers expressed admiration and respect for the lifeguards and their critical work at county beaches, but raised concerns about county councils’ “lack of representation in the collective-bargaining and arbitration processes for all bargaining units and the contract’s million-dollar price tag.”

Voting to recommend approval of the resolution authorizing funding for the contract were Committee Chair Riki Hokama, Committee Vice-Chair and Council Chair Mike White and Councilmembers Gladys C. Baisa, Stacy Crivello, Don Couch and Don S. Guzman. Councilmembers Elle Cochran, Robert Carroll and Michael P. Victorino were excused.

The resolution now advances to the full council for consideration.

Maui lifeguard Howard MacPherson. File photo by Wendy Osher.

Maui lifeguard Howard MacPherson. File photo by Wendy Osher.

Maui lifeguard North Shore captain Keola Brown. File photo by Wendy Osher.

Maui lifeguard North Shore captain Keola Brown. File photo by Wendy Osher.

Maui lifeguard jet ski patrol. File photo by Wendy Osher.

Maui lifeguard jet ski patrol. File photo by Wendy Osher.

Maui lifeguard tower. File photo by Wendy Osher.

Maui lifeguard tower. File photo by Wendy Osher.

Maui lifeguard tower. File photo by Wendy Osher.

Maui lifeguard tower. File photo by Wendy Osher.

Maui lifeguard tower. File photo by Wendy Osher.

Maui lifeguard tower. File photo by Wendy Osher.

Maui lifeguard tower. File photo by Wendy Osher.

Maui lifeguard tower. File photo by Wendy Osher.