Lifeguard Shortage Spurs Debate On Incentive Program

Lifeguard Shortage Spurs Debate On Incentive Program
File photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY – With the season rapidly approaching, the Ocean City Beach Patrol is facing a personnel shortfall, but if the ranks are not filled, there will not be any noticeable changes in coverage.

During a Beach Patrol budget presentation late last week, it was learned the department was coming up short on its projected staffing levels. Last year, the Ocean City Beach Patrol (OCBP) had a total of 206 surf rescue technicians (SRTs), or lifeguards. As of the budget meeting late last week, the OCBP was projected to have around 180 to 190 SRTs, or about a 10% difference.

However, there are still at least two more recruiting events and that number could change. The reasons for the shortfall are many, including competitive wages, increased recruiting incentives, and perhaps most importantly a critical affordable seasonal housing shortage. The OCBP and the town have increased the starting salary to $17.75 per hour this year, but the other challenges have proven difficult to overcome.

The OCBP does have a high return rate approaching 90%, but the challenge has been to fill out the ranks with new recruits. With two recruiting events remaining and a little over a month before the guards hit the beach, the number of new SRTs appears to be falling short, according to longtime Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin.

“Last year, we had 40 new,” he said. “As of this session, we have 18 new. We do have about 90% of our staff from last year who want to return.”

Arbin said part of the staffing problem is because, for competitive wage reasons, many of the OCBP staffers work other jobs in the resort and work for the department on a part-time basis. It comes down to simple economics for many of the guards.

“Unfortunately, we have a number of part-time people living and working in Ocean City working another job and working for the Beach Patrol part-time,” he said. “I’m talking about people work another job and then the Beach Patrol on a temporary basis. About 45 of our returnees do that.”

Another issue is the competitive nature of recruiting lifeguards and a shrinking potential recruit pool. Arbin summed up the situation with an analogy.

“The problem is the pond we’re fishing in is getting smaller,” he said. “The same number of people are fishing in it and they have the best boats.”

The $17.75 per hour wage increase is helping though, according to the OCBP captain.

“For the first time, I think we’re going to be competitive with other beaches in the area,” he said. “We have been behind for a couple of years compared to smaller beach patrols in the area.”

Another problem is there currently is no real incentive to return for first-year lifeguards.

“We have no second-year increases,” he said. “There is no real incentive to come back a second year. We’re the only beach patrol in the area that doesn’t have a retention bonus.”

However, Ocean City Emergency Services Director Joe Theobald assured the Mayor and Council if there is a personnel shortfall, there will be no shortage of lifeguards in the stands on the beach.

“If we have a 10% decrease in the availability of personnel this year, it is what the world is these days,” he said. “The public will be sufficiently guarded, just as they are every year. We will simply realign programs. We will put officers in the stands if we have to. You’re not going to see any difference. You will still have all of the stands out on the beach.”

During the presentation, the Mayor and Council considered different incentive options to help the OCBP recruit. There is already a rental assistance program in place, but the council is considering other options, including a rental stipend, or a referral bonus, if the current staffer brings in another recruit that is hired. If there is a personnel shortfall, the savings on payroll could be redirected toward recruiting incentive programs. Councilman Peter Buas suggested that could be considered something to look at during the budget wrap-up session a day later.

“Is that something we can look at during budget wrap-up?” he said. “If they actually have a 10% decrease, is there a way to incentivize that to get more people interested? We need to find a way to help them recruit.”

Arbin said the rental assistance program has been successful.

“One of the things the city has done is a rental assistance program where we play all of the upfront costs,” he said. “They are required to pay full security upfront by May 1, which they often cannot do. That’s already in place and it’s working great.”

Councilman John Gehrig said the pay hike this year should help, but questioned if it was enough to offset the rising cost of housing and other expenses in the resort.

“The pay increase is nice, but it’s still not covering it,” he said. “We talked about that OCDC seasonal housing project. We paid for that land. Any seasonal housing there, our people should take priority.”

Council Secretary Tony DeLuca said the picture could become clearer after the OCBP hosted two more recruiting events.

“I think we need to discuss it more at budget wrap-up, but that might be premature,” he said. “We can get an update in a work session right after they have recruiting events on Saturday and Sunday.”

The very next day, the Mayor and Council took up the issue again during the budget wrap-up session. Theobald said the OCBP was open to any possible incentive program.

“We’re looking for something to offset the cost of housing,” he said. “It’s certainly not something that is unique to the beach patrol, but the city as a whole. If we’re going to consider doing something like this, I’m happy to entertain any direction you want to go.”

Theobald said the OCBP is very resourceful when it comes to covering the beach with less when necessary.

“They’re pretty good at what they do on an annual basis,” he said. “I’m assuming there are other ways to do that. There are all kinds of directions we can go. It depends on the dollars you want to spend.”

Buas said any of the incentive options on the table were potentially good ones.

“I think the rental housing stipend is the best way to go,” he said. “I’m not sure how sustainable that is. I also like the referral idea. It incentivizes the guards to bring in their friends.”

Theobald said if the projections hold up as expected, there will be no visible coverage change on the beach.

“We’ll be in the area of 180 to 190, with which we will be able to cover the beach safely,” he said. “The public will be safe. It will take some internal changes with programs, but personally I am not concerned with the numbers.”

Councilman Mark Paddack said recruiting incentives have been successful in other town departments.

“On the transportation committee we have bounced around a whole lot of ideas over the last couple of years to improve our recruitment of bus drivers and tram operators and this year, we have a really good performance out of transportation. You mentioned a cash stipend for a referral. Is that currently being implemented when an SRT brings in somebody?”

Paddack said the referral bonus has been successful in the transportation department.

“You’re not doing that right now?” he said. “Can’t there be a consideration for that? We’re doing that with transportation. If a city employee brings in an applicant who is hired and works through the summer, they get a referral stipend. It’s $500.”

At budget wrap-up, the council took no immediate action on any of the proposed incentive programs on the table. Instead, they will wait to see how the final numbers play out and reconsider some of the options at a future work session.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.