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Dude, wanna make some big bucks? Try lifeguarding

Newport Beach

Lifeguarding can be good gig: You get to work on your tan, the views are spectacular and there's the satisfaction of knowing you're protecting lives.

And if you work in Newport Beach, Calif., you can make David Hasselhoff-sized pay of more than $200,000 in wages and benefits.

Where do I sign up?

More than half the city's 14 full-time lifeguards collected more than $150,000 in total compensation last year, and two made more than $200,000, according to The Orange County Register.

A look at the 2010-2011 budget document suggests that much of the cost stems from health insurance and a reserve for pensions,  a fact confirmed by City Manager David Kiff.

"I think the base pay for the seasonal lifeguards and for entry- and mid-level full-time lifeguards is about right and is at the market rate for ocean lifeguards in California," Kiff said. "But the pension benefit is too costly and can't be sustained."

According to the budget document, the city's highest-paid lifeguard battalion chief gets an annual salary of about $119,000 and total compensation of $187,782. Overtime shifts and "night-time standby pay" pushed the chief's total compensation to $211,000 in 2010, Kiff said.

Other lifeguards get salaries ranging from $60,000 to $100,000, plus benefits valued at $42,000 to $62,000 per person, according to city figures.

To be fair, lifeguards provide a vital public service: An estimated 7.1 million people visited the city's beaches last year, and the Newport Beach lifeguard division, which is a part of the fire department, made 2,190 rescues. It's safe to say lifeguards working such a busy — and often treacherous — stretch of beach require a more specialized skill set than, say, the teens watching your local swimming pool.

The salaries and especially the benefits paid out to lifeguards have become a potent political issue in Southern California, with one advocacy group posting a YouTube video arguing that Newport Beach lifeguards enjoy the "lifestyle of the rich and famous."

The group, Americans for Prosperity-California, takes issue with pension benefits threatening to swamp many California municipalities. The video mentions one recently retired lifeguard, 51, who will get a government pension of $108,000 a year for life.

Brent Jacobsen, president of the Lifeguard Management Association, which represents the salaried lifeguards of Newport Beach, defended the compensation of the workers.

"We have negotiated very fair and very reasonable salaries in conjunction with comparable positions and other cities up and down the coast," he told the Register. "Lifeguard salaries here are well within the norm of other city employees."

But the salaries are outside the norm of what most lilfeguards can expect. Part-time lifeguards in Newport Beach make $16 to $22 an hour with no benefits. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for lifeguards, ski patrol and other recreation protective service workers is $20,490.