May 27 2015 11:32 AM

San Diego union pushes for expanded workers' compensation benefits

Lifeguard Marc Brown starts his day at a station in Mission Beach.
Photos by Joshua Emerson Smith

When lifeguard Marc Brown pulled up around 8:45 p.m. in his red, city-issued pickup truck, flooding at the intersection of Rosecrans Street and Midway Drive had trapped a pregnant woman in her car. It was Thursday, May 14, and the first storm in months dumped more than an inch of rain in 10 minutes on an area around Liberty Station.

With four more emergency calls coming in over his radio from police dispatchers, the athletic 46-year-old quickly jumped into waist-high, moving water and made his way out about 20 feet to the crying woman.

"She's in a hysterical state because her car's filling up," said the career lifeguard and San Diego native. "The water's all the way up to the seat and rising."

Water from the street repeatedly sloshed over Brown as he muscled down a jammed window and forced open the woman's car door. After carrying her to safety, he continued responding to calls late into the night.

When reflecting on his 22-year vocation, what has scared him the most about such situations is not the immediate danger but what it could mean for his long-term health. Flooding on city streets is a nasty cocktail, mixing everything from car oil and radiator fluid to fecal matter and other sewage.

"It could be metastasizing in my system right now, Hepatitis C or whatever, liver damage, and I'm leaving my two kids at [3 and 5 years old]," he said.

Performing between 4,000 and 6,000 rescues a year, San Diego lifeguards respond to a wide variety of calls, even including after heavy rain when beach swimming is supposed to be restricted for 72 hours because storm-water runoff significantly raises levels of bacteria in the ocean. With its 100 year-round employees, the department also routinely makes rescues in the polluted Tijuana River Valley.

In large part, that's why a five-year needs assessment, approved by the City Council in 2014, included for lifeguards the implementation of "presumptive medical coverage"—a statewide provision for public safety employees that makes it easier to qualify for workers' compensation.

Ed Harris, spokesperson for the lifeguards union, in front of Belmont Park.

The assessment stated: "Develop a plan to provide permanent lifeguard staff the same or similar presumptive medical coverage as that of fire and police personnel."

However, Mayor Kevin Faulconer is now backing out implementing that provision as political retaliation for a separate issue, according to the lifeguards union, Teamsters Local 911.

"Six weeks ago, they walked in and for the first time ever, they said, The mayor's not supportive of this,'" said Ed Harris, spokesperson for the lifeguards union. "In our opinion that's a bait and switch."

Embroiled in labor negotiations with the city, Harris said the mayor's office is specifically targeting him for his political actions as a former councilmember. Harris said he made enemies at City Hall last September after he led council Democrats to reject the terms of a lease extension for Belmont Park, the oceanfront amusement park in Mission Beach.

"I believe that my relationship with the mayor's office after that deal has a lot to do with it," he said. "I can tell you that when I opposed the Belmont Park deal, the relationship with me and the Republicans changed overnight. When you don't go along with the program, they stop even looking at you or saying hi' to you."

After Harris left office, the council approved a lease extension with operator Pacifica Enterprises. However, the political row caught the attention of public-interest attorney Cory Briggs, who filed a lawsuit earlier this month challenging the deal.

The mayor's office declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing labor negotiations. At the same time, Faulconer walked back a campaign pledge for transparency, cutting off access to city staff for CityBeat regarding basic questions, such as how many total city employees have presumptive medical coverage.

Instead, the city's newly revamped communications department issued this statement: "The City of San Diego is currently in active negotiations with Teamsters Local 911 over lifeguard presumptives. The City does not discuss on-going negotiations and can't address questions about the current presumptive medical coverage as long as it is in negotiations with any bargaining unit."

Right now, under state law, the city's roughly 3,000 police officers and firefighters have presumptive medical coverage. That means that to qualify for workers' compensation, they don't have to prove certain illnesses are work-related, such as cancer, meningitis, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Under state law, lifeguards have had such protections only for skin cancer.

State law has also required that public safety employees who qualify for workers' compensation receive their full salary untaxed for up to one year, as opposed to the two-thirds payout for other employees. This compensation extends up to five years after retirement, including coverage of medical costs.

Such payouts have been defended as ethical, as well as criticized as costly and prone to abuse. While union officials have argued that their roughly 320 full- and part-time employees wouldn't significantly increase the city's liability, the mayor's office has yet to release a cost estimate.

The issue first came up several years ago when the city denied multiple employees workers' compensation claims for meningitis.

"It's just a matter of time before we get another case where a lifeguard comes down with meningitis or one of the other presumptive protections, and we're going to be in a position to be able to litigate thator go to the state and have it legislated so our lifeguards are protected," said Chester Mordasini, president of Teamsters Local 911.

That might not be an idle threat. In 2009, the lifeguards significantly beefed up their political muscle after leaving the city's white-collar union, the Municipal Employees Association, and organizing their own bargaining unit under the Teamsters.

In 2013, the union secured, through a state bill, full salary disability payments for its San Diego members, which were already enjoyed by other public safety employees. With cliff, river and drive rescue teams, harbor patrol duties and the ability to issue citations and make arrests, the department is one of the largest and most prominent in the country.

However, before union officials appeal to Sacramento lawmakers, the City Council will take a stand on the issue, which is now being discussed behind closed doors.

"My understanding is the presumptive issue has been continued in closed session until it's determined what the costs would be," Mordasini said.

If the council approves the new labor protection, the mayor's office could veto the decision. In order to override such a move, the Democrats on council would need a vote from one Republican to get the required two-thirds majority.

That would put conservative hardliner Lorie Zapf, who represents oceanfront communities from Point Loma to Pacific Beach, in a tough spot. Zapf had no comment.

"Lorie Zapf is going to have to come to realization that she represents the beach communities," Mordasini said. "In the past, she has given lifeguards huge praise from the pulpit, so is she going to tell the beach communities that lifeguards are not important? That's what it's going to come down to." 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that presumptive medical coverage was part of a labor deal between lifeguards and the city that included pay increases and cuts to pension benefits.

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