JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – A two-year U.S. Department of Labor investigation into the relationship between Jacksonville Beach and the Volunteer Lifesaving Corps found the City of Jacksonville Beach had 133 violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act from 2019 to 2021. The Fair Labor Standards Act guarantees the right to minimum wage and overtime.
For decades, the Corps provided training and volunteer lifeguards to watch the beaches on holidays and Sundays — until this labor investigation, which led to the end of the city’s partnership with the Corps for lifeguarding and training purposes. The report also alleges a culture of hazing and abuse, as the I-TEAM reported last week.
The report found that there was so much overlap between volunteer lifeguards and lifeguards employed by the city that they were basically the same entity. It found lifeguards were pressured by the Corps to work for free, but a spokesperson for the Corps said lifeguards were actually were drawn to volunteering, with the opportunity to work for the city just an added bonus.
To come into compliance, the city was ordered to pay back more than $122,000 in back wages.
The investigation found that virtually all of the workers employed by the city as part of Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue in recent years were also members of the Corps, and their volunteer hours were effectively free labor for the city.
Charles Bond, who is the past president of the Volunteer Lifesaving Corps Board of Directors, said he doesn’t agree with the report’s findings that lifeguards were pressured to volunteer so they could get paid work while lifeguarding for the city.
“Because there’s options out there. I mean, volunteerism is something that you choose to do voluntarily on your own time,” Bond said. “And if they want to come down and be a paid lifeguard only, there are three other beaches within three miles of it that they have the option to go work for.”
The report also alleges a history of hazing rituals and voluntary attendance at a “house party” where recruits have been subjected to physical abuse known as the “belt line” to gain “seniority” with the Corps and Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue.
A former lifeguard previously told the I-TEAM that she ran the belt line in 2012 when she was 16. She said new recruits were beaten with belts.
“You bend over, grab your ankles, say ‘Thank you, sir. Might have another?’ And then you sprint as fast — the fastest I ever have in my life,” said Nicki Emerson, who used to be a lifeguard for JBOR and the Corps. “It just disgusts me actually, thinking about it now.”
Bond said the belt line used to be run in public on the beach until 1998, but that Corps leadership doesn’t condone it now.
“What’s happened off property I can’t attest to because I’m not part of it,” Bond said.
After the report came out, the city dissolved the Corps.
A spokesperson for the city told the I-TEAM:
“The City believes that the report is an accurate account of the findings of the investigation and is consistent with federal labor laws. Going forward, it is the City’s intention to fully comply with all federal labor laws and regulations, as set forth by the Department of Labor.”
Many in Jacksonville Beach have come out in support of the Corps. Some speaking out in support of the Corps in February during a city council meeting recounted their experience of the belt line with pride.
“Best day of my life was the day I ran that belt line and got that blue uniform,” one person said.
“None of you ran the belt line, so none of you can possibly think about what it’s like to be us,” another person addressing Jacksonville Beach City Council said.
“I was the Commodore, so I ran the belt line first and last in my class,” a third person told the council.
Bond said more than 2,500 people have signed a petition to let voters decide whether the Corps should continue to operate with Corps volunteers and city employed lifeguard remaining separate.
The city says it has paid back the full amount in back wages.
Litigation between the corps and the city is ongoing.