Working as a lifeguard on the sun-kissed beaches of the California coast can be incredibly lucrative. Last year, 20 Los Angeles County lifeguards earned between $300,000 and $510,000. Another 98 lifeguards earned at least $200,000 according to “Baywatch on Pay Watch,” a report by OpenTheBooks, a watchdog organization that investigates government spending. In addition to the hefty salary, after 30 years of service, LA lifeguards can retire as young as 55 on 79% percent of their pay.
Daniel Douglas was the most highly paid lifeguard and earned $510,283 in 2021, an increase from $442,712 in 2020. As the lifeguard captain, he earned $150,054 in salary, $28,661 in perks, $85,508 in benefits, and $246,060 in overtime pay. The second highest paid, lifeguard chief Fernando Boiteux, earned $463,517, up from $393,137 the previous year. Most of the top-paid lifeguards were men and only two of the top 20 high-earners were women. Ironically, the popular TV series Baywatch featured twice as many female lifeguards as men. Lifeguard captain Virginia Rupe was the 16th highest paid, earning $307,664, and ocean lifeguard specialist Lauren Dale was the 19th highest paid, earning $303,518.
According to the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), the average annual salary for a lifeguard in the US is about $30,000, much lower than the average in Los Angeles County. Overall, average salaries in this county are slightly higher than in most of the US, but the small difference doesn’t account for the extremely high pay of these first responders. According to SalaryExpert, a salary data company, the average annual salary in the United States is $61,800, and the average annual salary in Los Angeles is $69,600.
These astonishing paychecks do not appear to be tied to performance. OpenTheBooks founder and CEO Adam Andrzejewski wrote, “many of the lifeguards who earned the Medal of Valor for their great bravery in saving lives, did not collect the county maximum.” Andrzejewski cites the 2020 Medal of Valor winner, Edward “Nick” Macko, an ocean lifeguard who earned $134,144 that year. Macko jumped into a remote Palos Verdes gorge and pulled a man to safety. Other lifeguards who won awards for exemplary service earned salaries similar to Macko, still much higher than the national average.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Andrzejewski noted some factors influencing lifeguard pay in Los Angeles County: a powerful labor union and a lucrative no-bid contract between the county and the city of Santa Monica. The county actually publishes its budget for the lifeguard services contract in its request for proposals, thus establishing a floor for the contract price. This causes “disproportionate variances,” said Andrzejewski. “The Los Angeles County Lifeguards Association is the driving force behind all of this. Since 1995, the labor union has negotiated for better wages, hours, benefits, and working conditions. In 2009, the city of Santa Monica signed a 10-year, $25 million contract with the county for lifeguard services. In 2019, the city renewed the contract for another five years at a cost of $17 million. No competing service providers were identified, and the contract was not put out to bid.”
After two years of requesting comment from the county and after three requests this year alone, a spokesperson finally responded to OpenTheBooks with an official statement. “The Los Angeles County Fire Department had approximately 166 full-time Ocean Lifeguards and 600 seasonal recurrent Ocean Lifeguards. All our lifeguards, including those in leadership positions, have taken on an enormous responsibility. They are responsible for protecting 72 miles of coastline, 10,526 square miles of open ocean waters, Catalina Island, and 1,686 square miles of Los Angeles County inland waterways.”
“In that same year, we had over 50 million beachgoers and our lifeguards executed over 9,286 ocean rescues and responded to over 13,303 medical calls. During large scale brush fires, our lifeguards take on additional responsibilities to work on specialized incident management teams to support firefighters all over the state – as they did in 2021 when wildfires burned an estimated 2,568,948 acres here in California. Additionally, our lifeguards were a critical part of the Covid-19 response efforts. The Lifeguard Division provided personnel, logistics, and incident management qualifications to support Covid-19 Testing and Covid-19 vaccinations all over the County of Los Angeles.”
A lifeguard’s job is not as easy as American television and movies make it out to be. In addition to their lifeguard duties, some also work as emergency medical technicians, underwater restoration specialists, and marine firefighters. Sometimes they have to work 24-hour shifts, and during the pandemic, many traded in their swimsuits and sunscreen for masks and scrubs. Nevertheless, the news that many Los Angeles County lifeguards earn 10 times the national average due to a no-bid union contract seems to have riled many taxpayers.