TURLOCK — Lifeguards and swim instructors got an unwelcome surprise at their end-of-the-season meeting this week: a notice from the city that they had been overpaid and would have to give back $1 an hour dating back to July 1.
The problem, City Manager Roy Wasden said, is that a City Council directive didn't get carried through to the aquatics staff.
"On June 22, the council adopted a pay scale for all recreation that lowered the pay scale by $1 an hour to be in effect July 1," he said. For those making less than $1 more than minimum wage, the pay would be dropped to minimum wage.
The changes were implemented for all seasonal recreation employees except the lifeguards and swim instructors. Wasden couldn't say what happened, other than that it is a personnel issue and being handled as such.
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Once the city started issuing paychecks, the problem became evident.
According to the memo from Allison Van Guilder, interim manager of the parks, recreation and public facilities division for the city, "effective 7/1/10 we will be applying the Council approved wage ... as a result, you will experience a deduction in your August 5th paycheck to recover the amount you were overpaid."
The lifeguards said they realize the city had to make cuts to balance a struggling budget but that a retroactive pay cut is potentially illegal.
"We understand about the pay cut part, but to take money away from us, we were all upset about it," said Adam Zelmer, a 19-year-old student at Merced College.
It's not fair to take back money they've already been paid, he said, and on which they've paid taxes.
"We're trying to fight back," said Kelsey Martinez, 18. She said the swim staff saw hours cut and relinquished a traditional 25-cent-per-hour increase the city had given each year a summer employee returned.
Tough to keep working
Maggie Hinkle, who manages the city's swim program at Pitman High School, said it was difficult to keep everyone at work Monday after the city issued its memo.
"People were really upset," said the 22-year-old California State University, Stanislaus, student. "We are willing to make changes, but we just wouldn't go back to July 1."
The aquatics staff contacted a labor relations group and sent Wasden and Van Guilder a letter questioning the legality of deducting pay retroactively without authorization.
Lifeguards said they signed contracts with the city in which they agreed to pay of about $9 to $11 an hour, depending on experience and job requirements.
But Wasden said that in addition to the money — "We can't pay them more than the City Council authorized" — the pay cut is an issue of parity. Other seasonal recreation employees, such as instructors in the dance program, have had their pay cut by $1 an hour since the summer began.
He said the lifeguards will get the correct pay rates in their checks issued today , but the retroactive deductions are on hold until City Attorney Phaedra Norton returns from vacation next week. The checks will advise employees on how much they have been overpaid.
"We need to correct this overpayment. ... We love our rec kids, they're good young people," Wasden said. "A lot of them are saving money to go to college. We're sorry they didn't get the right pay scale put into place, and we'll get this resolved as best we can."
Members of the aquatics staff pointed out that they must pay for their own certifications and license renewals, which can run hundreds of dollars each year. They fulfilled their requirements and signed contracts with the understanding that's what they would be paid.
For Martinez, a student at the University of California at Irvine, the threat of a retroactive cut portends a real hardship.
"I'm paying for my own apartment," she said. "This isn't movie money."
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2343.