Being a Jones Beach lifeguard must not have the same cachet it once did. Or maybe high school kids are spending too much time watching Baywatch instead of wanting to live it.
Lifeguard lieutenant Thomas Aird, for example, reported to the lifeguard station at Heckscher State Park in East Islip at the start of the season and heard some good news: The state would hire six lifeguards, a full crew, to staff his post at Field 6, otherwise known as West Beach.
“Then I got my list of new rookies,” says Aird, 36, of Setauket, a social studies teacher and swimming coach when he’s not saving lives. “I got four new people.” The other slots went unfilled, because not enough people applied for the jobs.
State officials admit that the parks system is understaffed when it comes to lifeguards, although spokeswoman Caroline Noble says the state has “enough people” protecting the millions of bathers who stream to Long Island’s state parks each summer. Noble does acknowledge some understaffing, saying, “We’re slightly under capacity.”
Lifeguards don’t see it that way.
“You’re compromising safety, let’s put it that way,” says Arnie Norman of Massapequa Park, a captain at Heckscher State Park.
Lifeguards say the state can’t fill the positions the way it used to, because those high school students traditionally recruited to work each summer— and who returned even when they moved on to college— have found they can make more money elsewhere. “The state has always relied on the aura of being a Jones Beach lifeguard because they’re the best,” says Aird. “But because of the pay, kids aren’t applying.”
It’s not necessarily the starting pay, which is in most cases better than what Nassau and Suffolk counties and the various towns are paying. And after state lifeguards complained that the $9.11-per-hour base salary wasn’t high enough to attract the best candidates, the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation raised it. Now, lifeguards in the Long Island region of the state parks system start at $10 an hour, whether they work on the more challenging oceanfront beaches or not.
But seniority pay— that’s something else. Oyster Bay, one of the few towns with beaches on the South Shore, also pays $10 an hour as starting salary for an oceanfront lifeguard. By the second year, the town pays $11 an hour. By the third, $12 an hour. State lifeguards, on the other hand, don’t get pay increases until the third year. And it gets worse. An Oyster Bay lifeguard may make as much after four seasons— $16 an hour as a lieutenant— as Tom Aird makes after 18 years.
And the town beaches aren’t as demanding on lifeguards. Tobay Beach, Oyster Bay’s oceanfront beach, attracts about 12,000 visitors a day on the weekends. On a hot day, Jones Beach can attract more than 175,000 visitors.
“We really should be the highest paid,” says Garden City attorney Roy Lester, a Jones Beach lifeguard who lives in Long Beach.
Lester, a former officer in the union that once represented the lifeguards— this year, the 450 seasonal employees switched over to the state Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association— says he’s not as concerned about the starting salary. But both counties and most of the towns make seniority worthwhile.
“You’re not going to find that the salary’s competitive,” says Lester. “There’s no longevity pay. Whether you’re there three years or 30 years, you get paid the same.”