Los Angeles lifeguard captain Daniel Douglas was paid $510,283 in 2021, including base pay of $150,054, and $246,000 in overtime. But wait, there’s more! Douglas also received $28,661 in “Other Pay” and benefits valued at $85,508.
Douglas was the top earner among 98 Los Angeles-area beach lifeguards found by Open the Books to have “earned at least $200,000 including benefits last year, and 20 made between $300,000 and $510,283. Thirty-seven lifeguards made between $50,000 and $247,000 in overtime alone.”
And that’s not even the end of it. Los Angeles lifeguards can retire at age 55 and receive up to 79 percent of their base pay, making them participants in one of the increasingly rare “defined benefit” retirement programs in the country.
Most private employers and many government agencies have changed in recent years to “defined contribution” programs that define benefits by how much the employee contributes to the plan.
Measured over the six years since 2016, Douglas has received just under $1 million in total compensation, according to Open the Books, a nonprofit government watchdog that describes itself as seeking to post on the internet “every dime, online, in real time.”
Data provided by the Los Angeles Fire Department, which oversees the lifeguards, show they are involved in scores of rescues every day throughout the beach season.
Nearly 52 million people spent time on Los Angeles beaches in 2021, necessitating 9,286 rescues by lifeguards.
That’s an average of 61 rescues per day for the 152 days between May 1 and September 30 when people are most likely to spend time on a Los Angeles beach.
With Southern California’s climate, however, lifeguard services are needed throughout the year, so the 9,286 rescues in 2021 equal an average of 25 per day for the full year.
There are currently 154 full-time lifeguards, plus 650 seasonal lifeguards, providing coverage for 72 miles of Southern California beaches, including 31 miles of public beaches centered on the Los Angeles metropolitan area and the Catalina Island area 22 miles off the coast from the city.
Besides keeping watch on swimmers at the beaches, the lifeguards also conduct rescue boat operations, underwater rescue and recovery, swift-water rescue, cliff rescue, marine mammal rescue, and marine firefighting.
Earning the second-highest total compensation among Los Angeles lifeguards in 2021 was lifeguard chief Fernando Boiteux, with $463,517, Open the Books said in a statement.
Third was section chief Kenichi Ballew-Hasket with $409,414. The fourth-highest was lifeguard chief James P. Gartland at $386,556, and fifth was lifeguard captain Patrick O’Neill at $383,032.
Open the Books said only two of the top 20 earners are women, lifeguard captain Virginia Rupe at $307,664 in 16th place, and ocean lifeguard specialist Lauren Dale, who received $303,518, for the 19th-highest-paid.
Lucrative overtime compensation is the key driver in the high earnings of Los Angeles lifeguards, Open the Books stated, noting that “37 lifeguards made overtime in amounts between $50,000 and $247,000. For example, Douglas (overtime: $246,060); James Orr ($146,506); O’Neill ($133,235); and five others each made six-figures plus.
“However, in a six-year period, between 2016 and 2021, the LA lifeguard corps made a fortune in overtime. The top three high earners made between $505,579 and $980,007 in overtime alone: Daniel Douglas ($980,007); Jaro Spopek ($513,365); and James Orr ($505,579).”
Open the Books pointed out in its statement that Los Angeles lifeguards face unusual on-the-job dangers, but not many of those who are recognized for heroism are among the top earners. Only two of the top 20 earners, for example, received the LA Fire Department’s Exemplary Service Award in 2021.
“Some high-earning lifeguards also win awards for heroism. However, we found many lifeguards winning Valor Awards failed to crack the top of the payroll,” Open the Books reported.
“In 2020, the Medal of Valor winner, Edward ‘Nick’ Macko (salary: $134,144), an ocean lifeguard, jumped into the rough waters in a remote Palos Verdes gorge and pulled a man to safety through potentially skull-crushing swells and over razor-sharp rocks.”