By Pat Sherman
Though San Diego lifeguards are authorized to make arrests and issue citations like any San Diego Police officer, until legislation authored by state Sen. Marty Block (D-39) was signed into law this year, lifeguards were not offered the same, full disability coverage as police and other emergency medical services personnel, due to a loophole in the way the state’s labor code was interpreted by San Diego officials.
According to San Diego lifeguard union spokesperson Ed Harris, San Diego’s lifeguards made approximately 5,500 water rescues last year, make 60 cliff rescues annually, and are tasked with medical aid, river rescues, marine firefighting and other duties with high injury rates.
Longtime lifeguard Brian Zeller was rescuing two people from the cliffs at Black’s Beach in July of 2012 when he learned firsthand the limitations of his coverage.
While being lowered down the cliff with the stranded climbers, their combined weight of 380 pounds was balanced on Zeller’s knee, causing a sudden, intense force that dislocated his hip, requiring hip replacement surgery, and leaving him with a hernia and torn ligaments.
“All other EMS services, police and fire, are covered under presumptive injuries. Lifeguards, sadly are not — and I had no idea that that was the case,” Zeller said, addressing San Diego’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services committee earlier this year.
Following his injury, Zeller received only 60 percent of his pay and his family’s health benefits were cut (he received a bill for $3,000 to reinstate them).
“I’ve always gone to work risking my life, assuming that the city would cover me if I was injured or killed in the line of duty,” Zeller told the committee. “I never expected to be in this situation, but I also never expected that I would not be covered under these circumstances.”
Signed into law in July, with some preliminary assistance from former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, Block’s legislation (SB 527) increases protections for San Diego lifeguards, ensuring they receive appropriate compensation for injuries sustained on the job. The law will take effect Jan. 1, 2014.
The lack of coverage, Harris said, stemmed from a “bad city practice” of interpreting California Labor Code 4850, which deals with workers’ compensation.
Because the code referred to “county lifeguards” and not “city lifeguards,” San Diego lifeguards were summarily denied workers’ compensation benefits.
Block’s legislation assures coverage for 92 fulltime San Diego lifeguards.