Lifeguard standoff settled in Jacksonville Beach
An agreement has been reached that could see Jacksonville Beach's volunteer lifeguards return to the shoreline on Sundays and holidays, joining paid city lifeguards all week
The agreement will come before the City Council for a vote on Monday. If approved, it would put an end to a dispute over wages and a legal tussle that left the volunteers locked out of the historic lifesaving station.
Mayor Chris Hoffman said it took a lot of time and effort to reimagine the relationship, which dates back to when paid lifeguards began about 90 years ago, working with the volunteer corp established 112 years ago. A lawsuit in 2021 stopped the corps cold.
"It doesn't look like it used to look. But we also want to honor the history and the partnership that the two organizations had together, and let's decide what that looks like going forward," she said. "It takes a willingness for both groups to sit down and work it out. We went into mediation because this was part a settlement of the lawsuit filed by the volunteer corps.”
Under the agreement, volunteer lifeguards would withdraw their lawsuit against the city. The corps would resume services with the city’s ocean rescue group starting Memorial Day.
“This agreement, most importantly, serves the safety interests of residents and visitors while honoring the traditions of excellence and professionalism" from the volunteers and city lifeguards, corps board president Jim Emery said. “We look forward to continuing our 112-year history of services and the 90-plus-year-old relationship between both of these exceptional organizations.”
The corps was founded in 1912 to provide Jacksonville Beach with lifeguards. Its website states it has recorded about 1,400 rescues and 1,800-plus assists to swimmers in distress. Its members have also performed first aid in about 25,000 cases and provided about 1.3 million hours of volunteer service, ultimately working weekends and holidays during the summer season.
Then Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue began providing lifesaving services in the 1930s, with both groups operating out of the Lifesaving Station (the former American Red Cross Life Saving Corps Station) at 2 Oceanfront N. The city lifeguards handled beach duties Mondays through Saturdays, and the volunteer corps handled only Sunday and holiday shifts. Corps officials said about 60% of the city lifeguards also worked volunteer shifts.
"There was a lot of overlap," Hoffman said. Both worked different shifts out of the same historic lifeguard station at the eastern end of Beach Boulevard, prompting an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor.
"The paid employees of the Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue were also volunteering, and that is where the issue with the Department of Labor came to a head," she said.
A city lifeguard was discharged from the volunteer corps, then sued Jacksonville Beach over paid lifeguards volunteering on Sundays and holidays with the corps, according to the Florida Times-Union. That prompted the Labor Department investigation into fair labor practices over city employees volunteering their time, the mayor said.
As a result of the investigation, the city paid back wages to its employees for the time they volunteered and worked to rectify issues pointed out by the Labor Department, city officials said. Then the city reevaluated the separation of Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue and what role those 63 volunteer lifeguards would have with Jacksonville Beach's paid lifeguards.
Ultimately, the city decided last year that paid lifeguards would take over seven days a week, with no spot for the volunteers anymore. The Volunteer Life Saving Corps was locked out of the American Red Cross station last year and taken off duty at the beach. The historic Jacksonville Beach Lifeguard station was donated to the city of Jacksonville Beach, and its well-known American Red Cross logos were removed as the city planned to continue using it for its paid lifeguards.
At the time, Hoffman told the Times-Union that it was her "sincere hope" the city and the volunteers could continue this relationship, even though it might look different in the future. Then this week, both parties reached a five-year agreement after a mediation session Tuesday, following an earlier one March 6.
The agreement has an option for a five-year renewal. It states that the relationship between agencies complies with federal and state law, with the volunteer corps providing services on Sundays and holidays as they supplement Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue efforts. And the volunteer corps will be able to return to the Lifeguard Station.
"We look forward to having more of those folks out there on our busiest days, our holidays, our Sundays, and to really help do a better job on our busy oceanfront," Hoffman said of the lifeguards. "They are busy — it’s year-round; it’s not just summertime anymore."