BRIGANTINE — Weeks before summer begins at the Jersey Shore, fears are growing within Brigantine’s beach patrol that it may not have enough manpower to properly protect city beaches if lifeguards don’t get paid more.
Brigantine lifeguards are looking for jobs that pay higher, Brigantine Beach Patrol Association member Ron DeFelice said this week.
Beach patrols across New Jersey already struggle to fully staff themselves through the entire summer, especially when younger guards leave to return to school. The changing labor market has only exacerbated the problem.
Incentives such as increased wages and retirement options like a 401k, may be the only way to correct staffing issues, suggests Colin Regn, beach patrol chief and CEO of the Atlantic Lifeguard Alliance, a third-party supplier of lifeguards in Ocean and Monmouth counties.
“It is a genuine crisis in the industry,” Regn said of beach patrol staffing shortages. “This is my 18th season, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
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Currently, Brigantine and its beach patrol are negotiating a new contract. Its union wants to see that raises are included.
DeFelice, City Manager Jim Bennett and Mayor Vince Sera declined to comment on negotiations for a new contract for policy reasons.
Not pleased with how negotiations are playing out, the beach patrol is calling on the public, its lifeguards and patrol alumni to voice their displeasure at the city’s next City Council meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall.
The contract between the city and the AFSCME Local 1201-A, the union that represents the city’s lifeguards, expired Dec. 31. In it, first-year lifeguards made $90 per day, or $11.25 per hour, with the pay going as high as $150 per day, or $18.75 per hour, for senior guards with over 20 years of service to Brigantine’s beaches. Guards are still being paid at the same rate, even though no contract currently exists.
That pay scale, however, has increased slightly since New Jersey’s minimum wage increase law took effect in 2018, DeFelice said.
But, many lifeguards and their superiors insist the current pay rate isn’t enough, especially while inflation continues to put pressure on American consumers.
Brigantine expects to spend around $950,000 this year on beach patrol wages. Typically, the beach patrol has a 110 crew roster each summer, DeFelice
It also anticipates collecting over $1.8 million in beach fees, including on-beach vehicle permits, according to the city’s adopted budget.
Brigantine was ranked the seventh-lowest paid beach patrol out of 33 in New Jersey at the start of the 2021 season. It is, however, among the top five in the number of beach patrol members and miles of protected beach, according to the Brigantine City Beach Patrol Lifeguard Association Facebook post Thursday, which referred to a report by NJ.com.
The beach patrol’s plea to the public for help isn’t a ploy to help get more money in pockets. It’s solely a concern that not providing enough incentive will make staffing the patrol harder and serving the community and its visitors tougher, DeFelice said.
There’s also an increased risk of more incidents and slower response times that wouldn’t occur if staffing was sufficient, DeFelice said.
“The biggest priority is making sure that we’re staffed throughout the entire summer properly,” DeFelice said.
DeFelice’s beach patrol job replaces his teaching position with the Brigantine School District in summer. As an 18-year veteran of the patrol, the Somers Point resident hasn’t seen staffing concerns arise like this previously, he said.
Shore towns are often competing with each other, as well as other companies, like Wawa, that are starting to compensate better, having to prove that manning a lifeguard tower surrounded by thousands of tourists on their beaches is worthwhile, DeFelice said.
“It’s not the job everyone is looking for now,” DeFelice said. “The beach patrol used to be a job everyone wanted.”
Wage increases across the entire labor market have been emphasized in the past year, with many businesses offering higher pay and other incentives as they try to appeal to workers. Many workers are also seeking higher-paying jobs due to the cost of living going up, a factor of record-high inflation.
A wage increase for Brigantine’s patrol remains up in the air, but other towns have moved to ensure guarding their beaches remains a go-to job, especially for young adults just beginning their careers.
In Avalon, a first-year lifeguard makes slightly over $19 hourly. For each year of service, a 25-cent raise is instituted. Senior guards serving for 10 years or more make about $21 hourly, Borough Businesses Administrator Scott Wahl said.
Avalon, seeing a need to be more competitive, increased its beach patrol salary range a few years ago. The move was also tied to New Jersey law calling for an incremental minimum wage increase, eventually setting the amount at $15 per hour, Wahl said.
North of Avalon, Ocean City, one of the Jersey Shore’s most sought-after vacation destinations, is still behind the borough’s wage levels.
A first-year guard makes about $12 hourly, while a senior guard severing 16 years or more sees a salary of just over $19 hourly, according to Ocean City’s beach patrol contract received by The Press.
The Ocean City Beach Patrol is up for a new contract and is in the final year of its four-year agreement, city spokesperson Doug Bergen said.
Regn is currently negotiating new salaries with his clients because of similar issues that Brigantine’s patrol claims it’s experiencing, he said.
Some beachfront towns, Regn said, are going as far as offering new lifeguards retirement plans, like a 401k, to entice them to jump on board their patrol. Changing tactics to attract younger employees may be the industry’s only option, especially when workers can find high-paying jobs elsewhere and don’t have to go through hours of CPR coursework and take swim and fitness tests.
“The barrier to enter this field is enormous,” Regn said.
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