Hawaii lifeguards are set to receive a 16 percent pay raise starting July 1 under a new two-year union contract.

Negotiations between the Hawaii Government Employees Association and state and county officials reached an impasse, but a neutral arbitrator took up the matter and issued an award in February.

The contract is far less than what the union wanted, but far more than government employers had wanted to pay. Now it’s up to county councils and the Legislature to fund it.

North shore lifeguards return from a rescue at Pipeline on Sunday.
North Shore lifeguards return from a rescue at the Bonzai Pipeline on Sunday. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

It’s the first contract for HGEA Bargaining Unit 14, which includes 330 water safety officers, 292 deputy sheriffs, 16 harbor enforcement officers and 91 state Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement officers.

“While this contract is a major victory for this new bargaining unit, we are aware that it does not address all of the unit’s concerns,” HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira said in a statement. “We will continue to push for further improvements to the contract in upcoming rounds of negotiations.”

Perreira declined to elaborate on what concerns were not addressed.

The Legislature created the bargaining unit 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.

Lifeguards stand with a family they rescued March 9 on the west side of Oahu. The family was swept out to sea on kayaks during a windy day.
Lifeguards stand with a family they rescued March 9 on the west side of Oahu. The family was swept out to sea on kayaks in high wind. Courtesy: Honolulu Ocean Safety

Ralph Goto, former administrator of Honolulu’s Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division, said the 16 percent raise is “unheard of,” and he attributed it to the new bargaining unit.

“You have more bargaining power when you’re viewed as public safety and not clerical,” he said.

The counties fund the lifeguards and the state pays for the other law enforcement positions, which will receive a 4 percent raise under the contract.

The lifeguards received the larger bump because the contract removes the first three salary steps to bring their pay up overall, since it was deemed to be too low for the work they do. They are set to receive 4 percent raises going forward.

The unit’s contract, which expires June 30, 2017, will cost $15.9 million over the biennium.

The award is roughly $10 million more than government employers’ final offer, but $84 million less than what the union last proposed, according to the 228-page arbitration agreement. The arbitrator determined that, based on tax revenue projections, the deal is affordable.

The employers’ last offer was a 4 percent across-the-board raise for fiscal 2016 and 4 percent for 2017. HGEA’s final proposal — when factoring in changes in salary structure, step movements, and standards-of-conduct pay differentials — amounted to a 74 percent increase for 2016 and 16 percent for 2017.

Randy Perreira, HGEA executive director.
Randy Perreira, HGEA executive director Civil Beat file photo

During contract negotiations, the union pointed at how the economy is “on a roll,” with hotels at capacity, construction rebounding and low unemployment, according to the arbitration award.

The Hawaii Council on Revenues’ state general fund forecast last week was 6.7 percent growth in fiscal 2016, which ends June 30. The council lowered its forecast for 2017 and 2018 from 5.5 percent in each of those years to 5 percent.

State Budget Director Wes Machida cautioned that Hawaii has an unfunded liability of more than $17 billion in pension and health benefits promised to thousands of public workers. He also noted competing demands for revenues, such as homelessness, air-conditioning for schools and rebuilding the Hawaii State Hospital, according to the arbitration award.

State officials also warned against a sizable pay raise because of its impact on contract negotiations with other unions. All public-worker bargaining units’ contracts expire June 30, 2017, and negotiations are set to start in a matter of months on new contracts.

James Nishimoto, chief negotiator for the state Office of Collective Bargaining, did not agree with the arbitration panel’s decision.

“While I recognize the fact that each bargaining unit is independent of other bargaining units, I am persuaded that this BU 14 award will set a precedent that will undoubtedly shape the expectations of the other units in future negotiations,” he said in a dissenting letter Feb. 22.

Governor David Ige walks past a monitor in his office before press conference announcing teh 2017 Executive Supplemental Budget at the Capitol. 21 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Gov. David Ige and state Budget Director Wes Machida walk into a press conference on the 2017 budget in December. The HGEA Bargaining Unit 14 contract would cost the state nearly $10 million over the biennium. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Gov. David Ige has asked lawmakers to appropriate another $1.6 million for the current fiscal year and $8.4 million for fiscal 2017, which starts July 1, to cover the state’s nearly $10 million share of the contract. That’s an increase of $5.6 million for 2017 over what had been budgeted.

Measures are moving forward in the House and Senate that would fund the contract.

“There is no dispute that the interests and welfare of the public are directly linked to the quality of employment for these employees.” — Wayne Yamasaki, arbitrator

“The proposed award should not be compared to negotiated increases for other units because this new unit was established to recognize the specialized work of sheriffs and water safety officers,” Ige said in a statement last week. “This award provides a path forward.”

The contract is expected to cost Honolulu $2.3 million next fiscal year, said Mark Rigg, director of the Honolulu Emergency Services Department.

He called the lifeguards’ pay raise “quite sizable.”

“We believe it will help with retention and attract a larger pool of applicants,” Rigg said in a statement.

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.

Part of the contract gives certified rescue craft operators an extra $3.50 per hour. Helicopter and plane work for water safety or law enforcement officers brings an extra $5 per hour under the contract.

Honolulu lifeguards search for a missing person in January.
Honolulu lifeguards search for a missing person in January. Courtesy: Honolulu Ocean Safety

“There is no dispute that the interests and welfare of the public are directly linked to the quality of employment for these employees,” Wayne Yamasaki, the neutral arbitrator, said in the award.

“If the public expects to continue to attract and retain persons who possess the courage and dedication of our law enforcement officers and ocean/water safety officers, we must likewise ensure that such careers are considered attractive by providing sufficient wage and benefit levels to these employees,” he said.

Civil Beat explored Hawaii’s high drowning rates in a multi-part series in January. Drowning is by far the leading cause of death for tourists, and ocean safety experts are working on ways to effectively steer them to guarded beaches to reduce the chance of injury or death.

State health department records over the past decade show that Hawaii’s visitor drowning rate is 13 times the national average and 10 times the rate of Hawaii residents.

Lifeguards rescue thousands of people — visitors and locals alike — at dozens of beaches around Hawaii each year. They also take hundreds of thousands of preventative actions, like telling someone to not get in the water on a particularly dangerous day and recommending a different beach that’s safer.

Visit hawaiibeachsafety.com for up-to-date information on ocean conditions at beaches around the state.

Here’s the full HGEA Bargaining Unit 14 arbitration award:

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