Lifeguard bill heads toward final votes

LIHU‘E — A bill to give the state’s lifeguards their own collective bargaining unit is heading closer to reality, Dr. Monty Downs, president of the Kaua‘i Lifeguard Association, said Sunday.

“They’re my heroes as far as throwing themselves out into our often-wild conditions and saving our residents and visitors time after time,” Downs said.

“The improved professionalism and morale that will accompany this will only serve to increase the quality of our lifeguards on Kaua‘i,” he said.

Downs, a physician, said he traveled with two local lifeguards to O‘ahu last week to testify to the state Legislature on behalf of Senate Bill 2967, the “Lifeguard Bargaining Unit Bill.”

Lifeguards, officially known as water safety officers, now are part of Bargaining Unit 3 of the Hawai‘i Government Employees Association, which includes mostly white collar workers such as clerks.

Downs said they were assigned to this category in the 1970s when there were only about 30 lifeguards statewide.

Now there are more than 400 and their skill sets have improved dramatically, including training on special equipment, for natural disasters and to guard the “entire perimeter of each island,” he said.

SB 2967, which would create  Bargaining Unit 14 just for the lifeguards, already won a yes vote from the full state Senate and on Friday cleared the House Finance Committee.

Next will come conference committee consideration by member House and Senate members, a full floor vote and then — if successful — the governor’s signature.

“If it gets to the governor’s desk, writing to the governor would be a huge help,” Downs said about what Kaua‘i residents can do to support the bill.

“This by no means guarantees they’re going to get increased compensation, but at least it allows them to make their case,” he said.

When it comes to pay, “they’re actually at the bottom of the ladder in terms of compensation as far as people in the business of saving lives,” he added.

On Kaua‘i, there are 45 full-time lifeguards and six part-time lifeguards, he said.

The bill has attracted support from throughout the state.

Kaua‘i Fire Chief Robert Westerman, in a letter to the state Senate, described the state’s lifeguards as “lost” in the larger  Unit  3.

“They are in a class that does not recognize the dangers in their daily work and therefore cannot get their rate compensated as public safety officers,” Westerman wrote in February.

He also listed the number of rescues by Kaua‘i lifeguards: 320 in 2009, 328 in 2010 and 378 in 2011, along with tens of thousands of “preventive actions” each year.

Kaua‘i Mayor Bernard P. Carvalho Jr. also wrote to the state Senate in February, stating that the lifeguards “should be categorized separately, as is done with police officers and firefighters.”

State Sen. Ron Kouchi, D-Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau, has proven a staunch supporter of the measure in statements released by his office.

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