(April 19, 2019) The Ocean City Beach Patrol is struggling in its recruitment efforts this year, according to Capt. Butch Arbin, who said fewer lifeguards will be on the beach at the start of this season.

During a City Council budget meeting last Thursday, Arbin said Ocean City Beach Patrol is one of the most efficient groups of its kind on the East Coast, based on how many days each lifeguard works and how many miles of beach they cover.

The agency, which operates under the Town of Ocean City Emergency Services, requested a 1.13 percent increase in funding this year, totaling $2.45 million. The majority of that total, $1.95 million, was for salaries and wages.

The beach patrol budget has grown 8.42 percent since 2009, which is seen as a peak year for Ocean City spending.

Asked by Councilwoman Mary Knight how recruiting efforts were going, Arbin said the patrol is having a difficult time.

“We’re finding something that hasn’t happened in the past,” Arbin said. “When somebody comes to the beach patrol, we require no certifications to work for us. They just have to take our test, and then they go through a paid surf rescue academy to get all the certifications and training.”

Arbin said that’s been helpful, because applicants don’t need to show up on day one with all of the necessary certifications. Instead, prospective beach patrol members register online for a test and go from there.

He said tests were held over the winter at three area colleges: Salisbury University, the University of Maryland and York College.

Turnout, however, has been underwhelming so far.

“For the York College test, we had 37 people preregistered – 17 showed up,” Arbin said. “It’s easy to sign up, [but] it’s hard to show up.”

Arbin said he follows up with each applicant who signs up but doesn’t come to take the test.

“There’s several reasons why they’re not [showing up],” he said. “One of the big things … is the cost to live in Ocean City.”

Arbin said City Manager Doug Miller and Budget Manager Jennie Knapp helped overcome that obstacle by creating a rental assistance program for Beach Patrol employees.

“We don’t help them pay their rent – we front them the rent, because most seasonal places in Ocean City expect all deposits and all rent paid by May 1, almost two full months before our college students that work for us get their first paycheck,” he said. “They don’t have that money sitting around.”

Arbin said money is fronted to returning employees and then later deducted from their paychecks.

“That’s helping a lot, [but] we don’t do that with first-time employees,” he said.

Arbin

Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin hands City Councilman John Gehrig a Beach Patrol shirt during a budget meeting on April 11. Arbin was there to present a budget on behalf of the Beach Patrol and noted the shirts were not purchased using taxpayer funds.

He said there is less seasonal housing available today than there was several years ago and that the cost of seasonal housing is rising faster than the year-round rental cost.

“We’re also finding there’s a wage war going on in Delaware,” Arbin said. “We used to be above everybody else in what we paid,” but now Delaware beach patrol start at $15.25, versus roughly $13 in Ocean City.

Delaware also offers $0.50 per hour raises for returning guards, for each year they come back, Arbin said.

“A third-year guard working up in Fenwick Island is making like $16-something an hour, compared to a third-year guard in Ocean City making $14-something an hour,” Arbin said, adding the job in Ocean City is more challenging, but pays less.

“Our guards have a much more difficult job to do, because in Ocean City they sit one per stand, they work a seven-and-a-half-hour shift … [and] they are responsible for guarding the beach, providing medical care, [and] enforcing laws and ordinances. They have a lot to do,” he said.

In other places, according to Arbin, beach patrol guards sit two per stand and work in shifts of one hour on, one hour off.

Knapp said the wage gap is actually fairly small, as third-year guards in Ocean City make $14.95.

“There’s actually a 30-cent difference between what they’re making and what we’re making, and with minimum wage increases starting in January of 2020 that grade of pay will go to $15.25 here,” she said.

Knapp said training wages in Ocean City start at $13.56 an hour.

“And they don’t stay in that for long, that’s only when they’re in the academy,” she said.

Arbin said starting guards endure a probationary period of about 21 days, before their hourly wages are increased to $14.94 an hour.

“But still, like I said, the Delaware patrols … just upped theirs,” he said. “That’s the facts.”

Knapp said the difference in pay was only about $180 for the season.

“[That’s] a bunch of cases of beer for some of these guys,” Knight said. She asked Arbin if he expected to have all the staff he needs this season. Arbin said he is contacting former employees, to see who’s coming back, and continuing to try and recruit new patrol members.

The next scheduled beach patrol test is Sunday, April 28 at the Ocean Pines Sports Core Pool on 11144 Cathell Road. For more information on Ocean City Beach Patrol employment, visit www.oceancitymd.gov/oc/departments/emergency-services/beach-patrol/employment.

Arbin said 37 people have preregistered for that test, but he’s concerned about the possible lack of housing with the busy season soon coming up.

“They may want the job, they may pass the test, they may not be able to accept it,” he said.

Overall, Arbin said, it appears staffing this season will be down.

“Right now, it looks like we are going to have less guards working less stands on the beach Memorial Day weekend than we did a year ago, based on all the information I have available to me today,” he said.  

Josh Davis is an MDDC award-winning editor and reporter at the Bayside Gazette and Ocean City Today newspapers, covering Berlin and Ocean Pines, Maryland. He is the author of three novels, including 'Vanishing is the Last Art' (2012). He lives in Berlin.

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