Ocean lifeguards seek special status from county for better pensions

The lifeguards want what’s called “special risk” benefits, a state-permitted classification that would nearly double the amount of their Florida Retirement System pensions and allow them to retire earlier.

They made their case at a Sept. 13 County Commission meeting, started a petition campaign and will argue it again at Tuesday’s meeting.

But County Administrator Verdenia Baker said Sept. 13 that the county doesn’t have the $600,000 a year the move would cost for the county’s lifeguards who meet the standards for the classification.

Besides, Baker said, “This issue has been around a long time and we’ve gone through the court system and they’ve upheld what we’ve done.”

“Staff’’s recommendation has not changed,” she said.

Meanwhile, though, the county is looking into raising lifeguards’ pay to be competitive with nearby agencies, Baker said.

Commissioner Melissa McKinlay asked if it was too late to adjust the 2016-2017 budget “so we’re not putting this off an additional one to two years. Baker responded it was, but she could pull money from contingency accounts if commissioners directed her.

The commission approved the budget six days later, on Sept. 19.

Baker also said Sept. 13 she would crunch numbers for reconsideration Tuesday. But an agenda memo for Tuesday’s meeting says, “Staff recommends motion to maintain current policy.”

The Legislature in the late 1990s amended the state’s retirement rules to include emergency medical technicians in the classification of “special risk,” but it leaves it up to the local government participating in the state retirement system to decide which jobs fit that special-risk class.

Lifeguards, such as Palm Beach County’s, who are not included in the class need to have 30 years of service or be 62 years old to start receiving a pension when they retire.

Those with the classification, which includes EMT certification among its requirements, can retire at age 55 or with 25 years of service, and the amount of their pensions nearly doubles.

In 2009, the state’s retirement commission denied an attempt by two Palm Beach County ocean lifeguards to obtain the risk classification, because “their primary duties are not on-the-scene emergency care, but ocean rescue and they had voluntarily obtained EMT certification, according to the memo for Tuesday’s meeting. Florida’s 4th District Court of Appealupheld the retirement board opinion in 2011.

Of the 11 Florida counties that employ combination lifeguard/EMTs, seven recognize the “special risk” status: Miami-Dade, Martin, Manatee, Brevard, Volusia, St. Johns and Okaloosa. The four that do not include their ocean lifeguards in the special risk class are Indian River, St. Lucie, Sarasota and Palm Beach.

While many Palm Beach County ocean lifeguards also are certified EMTs, Assistant County Administrator Nancy Bolton told commissioners at their Sept. 13 meeting the lifeguards are not hired that way, and so aren’t eligible for the “risk” benefits, although those who are EMTs do get an extra $65 each bi-weekly paycheck.

She said the county would have to “sponsor” an application to the state agreeing to include the lifeguards in the category.

If the county concurred with the lifeguards, it would have to make EMT certification mandatory for all of them, which would “potentially displace” the 35 of the 94 lifeguards who aren’t certified, according to the agenda memo.

And Baker has said allowing the extra pay and benefits could expose the county to having to pay the lifeguards many years of back-pay.

But County Ocean Rescue Supervisor Larry Russell said the county would need spend only about $600,000 a year if lifeguards waived the back-pay issue. Assistant Administrator Bolton later agreed with that figure.

“We’re talking about 60 lifeguards. We’re not talking about thousands like police and fire,” Russell said at the Sept. 13 meeting. “Let’s put a bandage on this patient moving forward.”

Daniel Barnickel, a lifeguard/EMT lieutenant since 2004, told the commission many lifeguards move to Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue because of better pay and benefits. But he said some lifeguards have switched to Martin County, which offers the special-risk pay.

Palm Beach County lifeguards’ base pay ranges from $15.73 to $25.80 an hour, depending on tenure, the county said. For a 40-hour week that comes out annually to $32,722 to $53,657. Bolton said the top end pay is among the highest in the state.

But that’s not nearly enough, 18-year lifeguard Tammy Lynn Moynihan told commissioners Sept. 13.

”I live paycheck-to-paycheck in a low-rent apartment,” said Moynihan, who said she has EMT certification. The single mother of three said she doesn’t have the luxury of working a second job, as many lifeguards do, and there’s “little chance” she’ll be able to retire on her current pension plan.

“I accept the dangers I face on a daily basis, and I do not regret my decision to choose this career,” Moynihan said. But, she added, “I’m not going to lie to you. The fact that my employer won’t recognize the dangers I face, and let the state decide if I am eligible for compensation like many many guards at other agencies, that wounds me. That wounds me.”

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