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Parks Department throws lifeguards a lifeline in battle with their unions

BY DUNCAN FREEMAN

Posted Tuesday, October 17, 2023 8:41 pm The Chief


Changes follow DOI report, longstanding claims about locals’ leadership.

(https://zeta.creativecirclecdn.com/chief/original/20231016-193236-phpfzOYLE.jpg) A lifeguard monitored swimmers at Astoria Pool last year. As the Parks Department implements reforms in the city's lifeguard core, two District Council 37 locals fear their independence and power is being eroded. REBECCA WHITE/THE CHIEF


If you’ve been a regular at Rockaway’s beaches over the last several years, you may have been startled by the large crowd of beachgoers that gathered in the late afternoon of July 31 on the 106th Street beach.

The spectators were watching the Rockaway Lifesaving Championships, a competition among city lifeguards that gives the lifesavers a chance to show off their sprinting, swimming and rescue skills.

The first “Shack Olympics,” as lifeguards call them, took place in 1938, but, despite the admiration that lifeguards and beachgoers alike have for the event, this year’s was the first official lifesaving championships held in over 20 years, a period when leaders of the two lifeguard unions prohibited the events.

The event’s sanctioned comeback this summer was spurred by the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation, which has long been hesitant to draw the ire of leadership of the two unions, but which this year partnered with rank-and-file lifeguards to put on the competition.

Iris Rodriguez-Rosa, Parks’ first deputy commissioner, who oversees the city’s beaches and lifeguards, was on hand for the Shack Olympics, and was met with cheers and applause from lifeguards when she was introduced, according to The Rockaway Times (https://www.rockawaytimes.com/lifeguard-games-return-in-official-capacity/). Since Rodriguez- Rosa was appointed by Mayor Eric Adams in February 2022, the department has taken on forceful posture that has, at times, grinded against the power of city unions representing lifeguards and their supervisors, lifeguards tell The Chief.

"It seems this year that Iris as the park's deputy commissioner was trying to say, 'this is my department, you guys don’t run it, it's still a parks department wing,' so she let us do things like the Shack Olympics,” Robert Butler, a 22-year lifeguard told The Chief. And the Olympics aren’t the only action that the Parks Department has taken to win the support of lifeguards; the department has started emailing lifeguards about openings for heavily coveted year-round lifeguard positions that have, in the past, been doled out by union leaders.

“For the first time ever, lifeguards are getting positions through the Parks Department and not through the lifeguard school and the unions," said Janet Fash, a longtime chief lifeguard who has advocated for greater union democracy.

Butler has directly benefited from the department’s new posture. Earlier this year, he was having trouble securing an appointment to take the yearly swim test that’s required for lifeguards. But within an hour after emailing the department with his difficulties, an official from his union, District Council 37’s Local 461, called him and quickly scheduled the appointment.

And after years of trying to get promoted to lieutenant lifeguard, Butler was finally able to secure an interview for the position this year, something he credits to changes at the Parks Department, which posted open lieutenant lifeguard positions at the end of the summer “It’s the first time ever there’s been a clear process to get promoted,” he said.

Union claims CBA breach

Rodriguez-Rosa's appointment and the Department’s resulting change in posture came on the heels of a December 2021 report from the Department of Investigation that found “systemic dysfunction” and mismanagement (https://www.thechiefleader.com/stories/doi-finds-city-lifeguard-division- swims-in-shark-infested-waters,894?) in the city’s lifeguard corps.


The DOI’s investigation was spurred by a landmark New York Magazine exposé on how Peter Stein, the powerful president of another lifeguard local, DC 37’s Local 508, has ruled the city’s beaches and pools with an iron fist since he became the union’s leader in 1981.

But Stein, who now controls both lifeguard locals and has handpicked their leadership, has argued in a legal filing that the Parks Department is unilaterally implementing changes that breach the lifeguard local’s collective bargaining agreements with the city.

In a petition with the Office of Collective Bargaining filed earlier this year, Local 461 and Local 508 alleged that, in a November 2022 meeting laying out bargaining demands, the Parks Department asked the unions to acknowledge that it could appoint intermediate managers in the chain of command to oversee the lifeguard program and appoint someone to oversee disciplinary hearings, two of the recommendations included in the DOI report.

The OCB, though, did not determine if this qualified as a breach of the union’s contract, deferring that question to an arbitrator. Since that first meeting, there’s been few, if any, meetings to bargain over a successor contract, according to the city’s Office of Labor Relations.

The labor commissioner, Renne Campion, said in an emailed statement that the city has been trying to engage DC 37 in negotiations since October 2022 over agreements for these two locals and that the city has since declared an impasse. “The city hopes to achieve contractual reforms that will improve Lifeguard operations and aid in recruitment for the upcoming season and beyond,” Campion said.

Thea Setterbo, a spokesperson for DC 37, declined to comment on bargaining or the OCB complaint, saying that “this matter is still in litigation.”

Lifeguards got a pay hike before summer 2022 season, a one-time raise meant to boost the number of lifeguards for that summer as the city dealt with a shortage at pools and beaches. The pay hike became permanent in 2023, and lifeguards received an additional 3-percent raise as part of DC 37’s economic agreement finalized earlier this year, Parks Department officials told The City (https://www.thecity.nyc/2023/3/28/23659235/lifeguard-pay-raise-swim-task-force) in March.

‘Doing what they're supposed to’

The unions, in their OCB filing, also accused the Parks Department of unjustly demoting Local 508’s treasurer, Javier Rodriguez from his position as lifeguard coordinator over competing claims regarding the recertification of a lifeguard.

But Fash and Butler said Rodriguez, who has controlled the lifeguard school and certification process since at least 2021, has used his broad discretion to determine which lifeguards to certify as a way to retaliate against those perceived to be hostile to the union.

Being vocally opposed to union leadership “puts a target on your back,” Butler said.

Calls to the lifeguard school were not returned and Rodriguez did not respond to messages left by The Chief on his answering machine. Local 508 also did not respond to a comment request.

Butler, the 22-year lifeguard, remembers that when he first started out, the Shack Olympics were a highlight of the year, and that the best lifeguards from New York’s beaches would then go on to compete with lifeguards across the country. After the union stopped putting on the event around, lifeguards repeatedly tried to restart it on their own.

“It was really fun,” Butler said of this year’s event for which Parks provided a budget and equipment. “People’s parents came, it was a really big event in Rockaway and it’s a great tool for

recruitment.

And the changes that Rodriguez-Rosa is implementing in the lifeguard corps have inspired hope amongst longtime lifeguards like Fash who have long pushed for reforms.

“There's so much more that we could do if we had the union and parks on our side," Fash said. “And right now, it looks like Parks is doing what they're supposed to be doing."

dfreeman@thechiefleader.com

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