Updated 3:01 p.m., 5/11/2016

After years of fighting for better wages and benefits, county lifeguards received word in February that an arbitrator had decided to award them 16 percent pay raises for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

It wasn’t as much as their union had wanted, but it was four times more than their employers had said they were willing to give.

Despite the arbitration award, it’s not a done deal.

If Maui doesn’t sign off on a $1 million budget expenditure, county officials say it could send everyone in the bargaining unit back to the table, based on their reading of a state attorney general’s opinion. So it wouldn’t just be the 55 lifeguards on Maui that would be affected, but several hundred public workers, including lifeguards on Kauai, Oahu and the Big Island, plus state law enforcement officers.

Hawaii Lifeguard Pay Raises Hang In The Balance

Pay raises for hundreds of public safety workers have been approved by the Legislature and every other county, except for Maui. Read more: http://cvlbe.at/1WoHcd9

Posted by Honolulu Civil Beat on Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Maui County Council’s budget committee, chaired by Riki Hokama, plans to take up the issue again Wednesday. The committee had deferred action in March when some members struggled to swallow such a big pay raise, as Council Chair Mike White put it.

Update: The committee voted Wednesday to pass the resolution to fund the pay raises. The action sends the matter on to the full council for its consideration.

County lifeguards are part of the Hawaii Government Employees Association Bargaining Unit 14, which includes 330 ocean safety officers, 292 deputy sheriffs, 16 harbor enforcement officers and 91 state Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement officers.

The arbitration award says it is “final and binding,” but also “subject to the approval of the respective legislative bodies.”

Maui Council members and county officials referenced an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office that they believe means a single county’s failure to fund the raises and benefits outlined in the arbitration award would send the whole bargaining unit back to the bargaining table.

The 1998 opinion by then-Deputy Attorney General James Halvorson said the rejection of cost items by one legislative body returns all cost items to the parties for bargaining. It was in response to questions about the impact of the Legislature’s failure at the time to fund pay raises for union workers.

The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The Legislature created Bargaining Unit 14 in 2013 — the first new HGEA unit in more than 30 years — in large part to shift lifeguards out of a unit that was predominantly secretaries and into one that fell under a public safety umbrella.

Maui lifeguards made 438 rescues last year at beaches around the island, such as Baldwin Beach Park, seen here in March.

Maui lifeguards made 438 rescues last year at beaches around the island, such as Baldwin Beach Park, seen here in March.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

State lawmakers voted unanimously last week to approve paying for the state’s $8.4 million share, which includes the fiscal 2017 increases in wages and benefits for deputy sheriffs, harbor enforcement officers and the conservation officers.

Honolulu City Council members have signed off on the $2.3 million increase for lifeguards on Oahu, and Kauai and Hawaii counties have also approved budget increases to pay for the raises.

So it’s down to Maui.

Mayor Alan Arakawa’s administration submitted the approval of the arbitration award and money for the pay raises for lifeguards in its proposed fiscal 2017 budget.

But the Council has yet to decide. Some members are frustrated that they have to find money in the budget for pay raises even though they weren’t part of the negotiations.

Honolulu lifeguards waved signs in support of their Maui brethren, Monday, at the intersection of Ala Moana Boulevard and Atkinson Drive.

Honolulu lifeguards were looking for public support during their rally Monday at Ala Moana Boulevard and Atkinson Drive.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Each county had a deputy attorney involved in the bargaining process, but that’s about the extent of the counties’ official representation.

“As much as I support the ocean safety folks, this is a huge chunk,” White told his colleagues at their March 29 meeting. “I’m not ready to support it today.”

The matter was deferred, which set off a campaign by lifeguards and others pressuring the Council members to take it up again and approve it.

Maui County Councilman Riki Hokama

Maui County Councilman Riki Hokama

Courtesy: Maui County

On Facebook, a post by Honolulu lifeguard Harold Teshima was circulated with a photo of a lifeguard standing in a tower with a message above him saying “Support Hawaii Lifeguards.” It included information about how the Maui County Council’s decision to defer action is “jeopardizing the pay raises for all lifeguards” statewide, and how to contact Hokama to urge him to schedule a meeting and support the funding.

And on Monday evening, several dozen Honolulu lifeguards rallied at the intersection of Ala Moana Boulevard and Atkinson Drive to raise awareness of the issue. Wearing their yellow ocean safety shirts, they waved signs saying “Help BU14” and “Kokua our lifeguards.”

Mel Puu, president of Bargaining Unit 14, said in an interview that the “Maui County Council needs to step up.”

He said the unique work that lifeguards and state law enforcement officers do warrants the raises, and that their pay has historically been low, especially when the cost of living is considered.

Update After the committee’s unanimous vote Wednesday in favor of funding the award, Puu said he felt the council members were swayed by the lifeguards from Maui and Oahu who testified.

He said a date hasn’t been set yet for the full council to take up the matter, but it could be as soon as May 20. In the meantime, he said he was pleased to have cleared “a pretty big hurdle” at the committee level.

Maui lifeguards took 163,079 preventative actions and made 438 rescues last year, according to the HGEA.

Honolulu lifeguards waved signs in support of their Maui brethren, Monday, at the intersection of Ala Moana Blvd. and Atkinson Drive.

It was a family affair at the Monday rally of lifeguards in Honolulu.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Hokama announced last week that the budget item would be back on the agenda Wednesday.

“Ocean safety officers are instrumental in ensuring the protection of our residents and visitors, and there is no doubt our employees deserve proper compensation for the service they provide,” he said in a statement.

“County council officials, who are tasked to find monies to fund salary increases in such agreements, have no say at all on what appears to be a ‘done-deal’ matter,” he said. “The process is frustrating.”

“County council officials, who are tasked to find monies to fund salary increases in such agreements, have no say at all on what appears to be a ‘done-deal’ matter.” — Maui County Councilman Riki Hokama

Hokama could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Other council members, such as Elle Cochran, were ready to approve the funding for the pay raises in March. Cochran, who also noted the process is frustrating, said Bargaining Unit 14 is “very worthy” and its public services come with a price.

“It’s lives on the line,” she told her colleagues at the March meeting. “It is what it is.”

Hawaii water safety officers earn from the mid-$30,000s to the low-$70,000s, depending on experience and position, according to 2016 salary data and county budgets.

Civil Beat published a multi-part series in January, Dying For Vacation, that examined why the rate of drowning among visitors is so much higher in Hawaii than other coastal places. Three visitors died in as many days last week.

The top recommendation from ocean-safety experts for visitors and locals alike to stay safe was going to beaches with lifeguards, who aren’t just there to rescue people but also provide invaluable advice.

Here’s the 1998 Attorney General’s opinion that Maui County officials are interpreting to mean if they reject the funding request for the pay raises then it affects the lifeguards on the other counties and state workers who are part of Bargaining Unit 14.

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