The mayor has a math problem on his hands.

Mayor Peter Carlisle has denied a requested lifeguard exemption from the union-approved 5 percent pay cut, saying he wants to “maintain consistency throughout all departments” — even though a member of his Cabinet says the cut will actually cost the city an extra $20,000.

In a detailed letter to the mayor on June 13, Emergency Services Director Dr. James Ireland requested the exemption for the Ocean Safety Services division, stating that not only will the city lose more money than it will save due to the terms of the agreement, but the pay cut and 50-50 medical premium increase will have a “disproportionate effect” on Oahu’s 161 full-time and 70 part-time ocean safety officers.

Because beaches are open and must be staffed 365 days of the year, implementing the pay cut will require extra overtime shifts and won’t actually create any savings, Ireland wrote. The agreement with the Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA) calls for six hours per month of paid supplemental time off that must be used, which amounts to nine days per year. When the full-timers take their paid nine days off, part-time personnel have to be called in and paid to cover the beaches.

Since part-time contract workers are only budgeted to work 20 hours or less per week, the city would incur approximately $400,000 in unbudgeted expenses in order to maintain “minimum staffing levels” at Oahu beaches, according to Ireland. He juxtaposed that number with the $380,000 it would cost the City to exempt the Ocean Safety Services Division from the pay cut altogether. Applying the agreement to Ocean Safety would actually cost the City an extra $20,000 annually.

“As these numbers indicate, it doesn’t make sense to not exempt them,” said Ann Kobayashi, chair of the Honolulu City Council‘s Budget Committee. “We try not to get involved while the unions are negotiating but at some point I’m going to have to meet with the mayor to talk about more efficiency, which the government is sometimes not good at.”

Council member Ikaika Anderson, a member of the Budget Committee, agreed. He said the city should reevaluate the contract “if indeed it’ll cost the city more money.”

It doesn’t make sense to cut our lifeguards’ pay by 5 percent only to incur an additional $20,000 in overtime costs to keep our beaches safe,” he said.
The mayor’s office and Ireland declined to comment. Negotiations with other unions are still underway.

“At this point, it is an internal matter between the Emergency Services and the administration,” HGEA spokeswoman Jodi Chai said. “If the city is looking to amend the agreement for this or any other group of employees, then the administration would need to bring it to us as a proposal for our members to consider. Any changes to the agreement are subject to negotiations.”

HGEA was the first of five public unions with expired contracts to reach an agreement. The United Public Workers, State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers and Hawaii Fire Fighters Association are still negotiating. The state imposed a contract on the Hawaii State Teachers Association after it said negotiations reached an impasse.

The HGEA agreement alone is projected to save the state about $124 million over the next two fiscal years. HGEA members saw the cut on their pay stubs starting July 1.

“Our wages have been frozen for the last six years,” said Jerry Miller, a 29-year veteran ocean safety officer on the North Shore. “We are already way underpaid for what we do compared to the rest of the world, especially on the North Shore. We rescue and administer first aid, but we also do a lot of preventative, proactive work. I can tell by how you walk, what you’re carrying, and what you’re wearing if you’re going to be my customer that day. People come to Hawaii to enjoy the beaches. We have more daily interaction with the public than police and fire combined. We are not expendable. Without lifeguards these beaches are deadly.”

According to Ireland’s letter, water safety officers do not have comparable pay scales, retirement benefits, or opportunities for professional advancement that police, fire and EMS personnel do, and are the lowest-compensated public safety employees in the City and County of Honolulu.

While all public safety officials’ hourly pay rates vary due to seniority and additional certified skills, Hawaii’s ocean safety officers have an hourly mean wage of $17.06 and an annual mean wage of $35,490, according to the 2010 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hawaii’s firefighters, by comparison, have an hourly mean wage of $25.17 and an annual mean wage of $52,350. Hawaii Emergency Medical Technicians (paramedics) have an hourly mean wage of $23.04 and an annual mean wage of $47,920.

Ireland concludes that the 5 percent pay cut combined with the increase in medical premiums will have a severe negative impact on not only the personnel, but on the level of Ocean Safety services that the public has come to expect.

The mayor says that no exceptions will be made in this contract period.

DISCUSSION: What do you think about the way the city is handling wage cuts? Join the conversation.

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