Atlantic Beach lifeguard John Runco. (Aug. 22, 2011)

Atlantic Beach lifeguard John Runco. (Aug. 22, 2011) Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

As their summer draws to a close, Atlantic Beach lifeguards wonder whether it's worth returning to work next season.

At issue is the village's decision to stop paying lifeguards for their one-hour lunch break.

Atlantic Beach officials said the decision made in 2010 was part of their overall budget-cutting efforts. Some lifeguards said it devalues their role in keeping the eight beaches safe and has meant fewer applicants for the more than 30 summer beach-safety jobs.

"Lifeguards are no different than policemen or firemen -- they are on call . . . whenever they are working," said Rick Weinstock, 45, a lifeguard for almost 30 years. "This is a matter of being compensated properly."

Weinstock said he is working at the Sunny Atlantic Beach Club rather than for the village because of the no-lunch-pay policy. The longtime Atlantic Beach resident and former village lifeguard said his new job pays him a salary, which includes lunchtime pay.

The cost of restoring the lunch-hour compensation would be about $63 per lifeguard for a typical six-day workweek, or almost $20,000 for the summer.

Lifeguards raised the issue with the village "in the middle of the summer," Mayor Stephen Mahler said. "We can't change the budget in the middle of the season for them."

Town of Hempstead and City of Long Beach lifeguards are paid for lunch. The more than 150 ocean lifeguards working for the town are required to stay on the beach during their lunch hour, Hempstead officials said.

"Their focus is on the water, and to tell you the truth, lunch becomes secondary," said Mal McGarry, supervisor of lifeguards for the town. "They are always on duty. That is why we pay them the full eight hours."

Mahler said village lifeguards watch over fewer beachgoers than town or city lifeguards. The narrow village beaches are open only to Atlantic Beach residents, whereas Hempstead and Long Beach are open to the public.

The village will be revising its lifeguard pay scale to be "based on seniority and merit for the next year," the mayor said, but won't reconsider the lunchtime pay policy.

Anthony Runco Jr., 21, a lifeguard for the past six years, said the village received more than 100 lifeguard applications last year, but this year it saw 38, which he attributed to the lack of mealtime pay.

"We have plenty of applicants," Mahler countered. "We certainly have enough to round out our staff. Some years there are a lot more applications than others."

But, Runco said, "now that there is some awareness about it [the policy change], it will be an issue with the village trying to find lifeguards in the future."

His brother, John Runco, 19, who also is a village lifeguard, said, "Most lifeguards eat on the stands. If somebody needs our help, we have to go out and help them, so we should be getting paid for our meal, period."

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