On the evening of July 31, New York City’s ocean lifeguards competed for gold (or, more accurately, seashells) in seven different lifesaving events in the Rockaway Beach Olympics. The tournament, facilitated by the Department of Parks and Recreation and held at Rockaway’s Beach 106, was the first organized event for the city’s lifeguards since 2006, and was designed to build camaraderie in the midst of New York City’s critical lifeguard shortage.
Post-pandemic, lifeguard shortages have plagued beaches across the country, but the situation at New York City’s beaches is different. Here, it’s exacerbated by clashes between the city, the lifeguards, and the unions that represent both rank-and-file lifeguards and their supervisors — Locals 461 and 508, respectively. Both locals are part of District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal union. “The Lifeguard Division is under my jurisdiction,” declared the Department of Parks and Recreation’s first deputy commissioner, Iris Rodriguez-Rosa, to loud cheers from the gathered competitors at the Rockaway Olympics. Appointed last year, Rodriguez-Rosa is seen by many as an agent of positive change within the Lifeguard Division.
According to the Parks Department, lifeguard numbers have increased over the course of the season, from around 500 guards to 800 as of July 25 — but this is approximately half the number necessary to staff all of the city’s pools and 14 miles of beaches. July alone saw four fatal drownings, three in the Rockaways and one in Coney Island. “This kind of thing is preventable. Yesterday is just heartbreaking to me,” said Janet Fash, a veteran chief lifeguard in Rockaway, about the Coney Island drowning, in a phone call with the Voice on July 28. “The unions have unilateral control. They’re denying us manpower and it’s having drastic consequences.”
A 2021 report by the NYC Department of Investigation (DOI) found that “the Lifeguard Division reveals systemic dysfunction in its management and accountability,” citing union interference as one of the Division’s primary issues. A Rockaway guard who requested anonymity — a 20-year veteran of the Rockaway lifeguard team — said in a phone call to the Voice on August 1, “We pay into a union but it’s a union on paper only. There’s no active union, they don’t represent our interests.”
The unions have declined to join the new NYC Lifeguard Interorganizational Task Force. The force was formed this past March by the YMCA of Greater New York, the Association for a Better New York, the Department of Education, and the Parks Department in order to address the lifeguard shortage. Despite their key involvement in the Lifeguard Division, the unions claim that the recruitment and retention of guards is beyond their purview.
According to the DOI report, the locals and their boss, Peter Stein, who has headed Local 508 (representing lifeguard supervisors) since 1981, have faced scrutiny for decades. The 2021 report is the second time the DOI has launched an investigation into both the Lifeguard Division and their unions (the first report was in the 1990s). Stein and other union leaders have been accused of doctoring drowning reports, protecting guards accused of sexual misconduct, and manipulating swim tests. And not only is Stein a union boss but he and other union leaders also supervise the Lifeguard Division — roles that represent a conflict of interest. They control nearly all lifeguard operations, including overseeing lifeguard training, scheduling and deploying guards, and deciding which beaches will be open, and when.
In 2020, a group of senior lifeguards, including Fash, took action against Franklyn “Bubba” Paige, the president of Local 461 (representing rank-and-file guards). After a trial facilitated by the national judicial panel of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Paige was removed. “But he was really only a placeholder,” explained Fash. “Peter Stein runs everything.” As the anonymous Rockaway guard explained, “The way Stein does things, he’s like the Godfather. Everyone who works under him are just his little puppets. He’s been setting up the Division like a chess game for 50 years.”
The lifeguards aren’t the only ones who see Stein’s leadership as Mafia-esque. Darren Aronofsky’s production company, Protozoa Pictures, is slated to turn the 2020 New York magazine article “Boss of the Beach,” chronicling Stein’s multi-decade reign, into a dramatic television series. According to Fash, after the AFSCME trial, union leadership retaliated against the senior lifeguards who had spoken out against Paige. Routinely, they failed outspoken guards in the required annual swim test. And according to the anonymous source, “The guys in charge, they pick and choose who they want to pass and who they want to fail. Before this year, they didn’t even have a clock on the wall. What they’ve done is allowed Stein’s people to pass the test even if they can’t make the time, so that they can retain their positions.”
In a statement via email to the Voice on July 31, District Council 37’s director of communications, Thea Setterbo, asserted that the guards who speak out against Stein are simply “opposition candidates involved in internal union politics.” But though Fash has over 40 years of ocean-guarding experience, this year, for the first time, the Lifeguard Division has assigned her to work at a pool. She claims that this is another retaliatory tool, which has been used to push out other senior guards. “Because they’ve gotten rid of so many experienced guards, this year there are miles of beaches without properly trained supervisors. And the guards who are out there, they’re in high school, college — it’s trial by fire.”
Meghan Lalor, the Parks Department’s assistant commissioner for communications, confirmed the lack of supervisors in an email to the Voice on August 4: “We have posted a job opening for Lieutenant and Chief Lifeguard vacancies in Rockaway and expect to fill them before the season ends,” she wrote. The season officially ends on September 10.
Due to an expired collective bargaining agreement with the Lifeguard Division that has resulted in “limited oversight capacity,” according to the DOI report, the Parks Department’s power is restricted. After the Department’s former first deputy commissioner, Liam Kavanagh, was cited numerous times in the DOI’s 2021 investigation and subsequently retired, Iris Rodriguez-Rosa was appointed to the role. Kelsey Jean-Baptiste, a press officer for the Parks Department, wrote in an email to the Voice on July 28 that the DOI “report issued a number of changes, which we are working with the Office of Labor Relations on.”
“Kavanagh gave the union guys carte blanche, free reign, to do whatever they wanted,” claimed the anonymous guard. “The new commissioner is doing a lot and making steps in the right direction. But it’s a steep uphill battle.” The guard did stress that Rodriguez-Rosa has made efforts to reduce the unions’ influence, such as holding the first-ever citywide meeting for lifeguards and informing seasonal workers of full-time assignments — responsibilities previously designated by union leaders.
Additionally, under Rodriguez-Rosa’s jurisdiction, the Lifeguard Division is now required to inform lifeguards of their swim test times. “We’re looking to be able to open doors and to open opportunities for people to be able to come in and pass the lifeguard test,” she told the Voice at the Rockaway Olympics. Rodriguez-Rosa maintains that the Parks Department has a positive relationship with the unions, and emphasized that increased lifeguard recruitment and patron safety are her primary concerns. But the anonymous source claims that Stein’s Division mismanagement has led directly to improper guarding practices and water safety issues: “We’ve only done training drills maybe twice this summer. Drills should happen every day, once a week at a minimum. Everyone can see the kind of consequences that kind of negligence has in emergency situations.”
Still, the city’s longtime lifeguards hope that the work of Rodriguez-Rosa will inspire other members of the city government to take action to improve Lifeguard Division management. “At this point, we need someone from the City Council or something to step in and just say ‘enough,’” concluded the anonymous Rockaway guard. “These guys have made themselves untouchable, and despite the fact that people are dying, they continue to get away with it.”
“This is 2023,” said Fash. “The public deserves better.” ❖
Ruthie Kornblatt-Stier hails from the woods of western Massachusetts and works in New York City covering topics ranging from women’s issues to the climate crisis to entrepreneurs. Her work has appeared in Worth magazine, Techonomy, and Propagule.