San Diego Takes Lead in Lifeguard Health Coverage

San Diego will provide health care coverage of short-term illnesses and injuries to city lifeguards setting a precedent in California and possibly the U.S., lifeguard officials said Thursday.

Lifeguards with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department approved the plan Wednesday night with final email votes tallied early Thursday. 

The City of San Diego would pay lifeguards for time off and treatment if they are sickened by tuberculosis, meningitis, hepatitis, pneumonia, a hernia or MRSA. Previously, lifeguards were covered for only skin cancer and injuries.

However, the local lifeguard union argues the proposal does not cover the long-term health effects of swimming in contaminated water.

“It doesn’t protect us against heart [issues] and cancer. Cancer is something we’re all afraid of and the fact we’re constantly swimming in chemicals, other pollutants, the drainage,” said Lifeguard Sgt. Ed Harris, the union spokesman. “It’s a long-term career.”

Lifeguard Chief Rick Wurts said the offer puts San Diego lifeguards above others in California in terms of benefits.

“To the best of my knowledge, there is no other lifeguard agency anywhere in the state of California that has anything like this, or anywhere else in the United States that I’m aware of,” said Wurts. “This is an incredible opportunity for lifeguards.”

According to Harris, two weeks ago, lifeguards filled a bottle with water they were swimming through while looking for a car during the El Nino floods. Harris said a lab test showed bacteria in the water was four times over the acceptable level.

He is concerned about long-term exposure to dirty water for people like himself who have been lifeguards for decades.

“You can’t keep it out of your eyes, mouths, ears or throat, doesn’t matter what we wear,” Harris told NBC 7. “We’re going into areas in the Tijuana River that no company would send employees there without a hazmat suit, and we’re going open from the neck up.”

The city and the labor union have been in discussions over “presumptive illness coverage” benefits for two years. Lifeguards approved the most recent offer from the city, which was delivered after a closed session of the city council.

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