Over Labor Day weekend, Ventura County beaches will have transformed into a massive playground for thousands of people celebrating the end of summer. But for me, the beach is my worksite — where I’ve helped keep it clean for over 23 years. Sand and the surf have symbolized Southern California paradise since I was a kid, so doing beach clean-up is partly a labor of love. But a lot of it is just plain labor! Since 1995, I’ve been on an eight-person crew maintaining Hollywood Beach and Silver Strand Beach, easily Ventura County’s most popular. Natural beauty is a big part of what puts Ventura County on the map, so with each job we finish, we feel a big sense of pride. But our satisfaction also comes from knowing that every completed job is another hard-earned dollar for us and our families. When public employees like me get stereotyped for supposedly not working hard enough, I think of all of the messes I’ve cleaned up — and I know in my heart that I’ve earned my pay and, yes, my pension. Critics conveniently forget that a pension represents a lifetime of hard work. And on the beach clean-up crew, we practically break our backs to add real value to Ventura County — the kind of value that makes our community a destination point for new residents, investors and tourists each year.
The beaches are some of our “chief tourist attractions,” according to the Ventura Chamber of Commerce. They helped generate $310 million in hotel accommodation and food service sales in 2007, the latest year that U.S. Census Bureau data is available. Tourism netted Ventura another $4 million through the hotel tax (AKA the transient occupancy tax) in 2012. Swimming, surfing and sailing are popular reasons to visit Ventura — and the beach is where it happens. Some of the Millennial parents who bring their kids to the beach weren’t even born when I started my job. But they and everyone else enjoy the beach today because of the work we’ve done for decades.
Each day, our crew starts work by opening Silver Strand and Hollywood Beach. That’s well over two miles. It’s our responsibility to open the beaches by 7 a.m. We check for safety hazards and injured wildlife — which could be an elephant seal three times the length of a truck! The next order of business is always cleaning the beach bathrooms, and they alone are biohazards. We use a special spray on the entire area to kill HIV or any blood borne diseases — and people never fail to leave behind everything from dirty diapers to discarded beach gear, like broken surf boards and torn bathing suits. Then it’s on to emptying every single barrel on the beach and collecting all the random debris — no matter how big or unpleasant. After a heavy rain, we gather so much trash our crew needs heavy machinery to haul it all away! The work day wouldn’t be complete without the five Harbor Department facilities to clean in between. When you add it all up, it’s a lot of physical labor to do year after year — and it’s tough on your body even when you’re decades away from retirement.
I’m not complaining — in fact, it was a combination of my attitude and my experience that got me my current job with the county’s Harbor Department all those years ago. For 16 years prior, I worked as a county custodian. But in America, we are taught since childhood about the importance of working hard and playing by the rules. So when our crew hears about yet another call for pension reform — a fancy way of saying that people need to lose their retirement security — we feel like the rules are being changed in the middle of the game. I love my job and I always have. Every day I get to leave our beaches cleaner and safer than I found them. Since I started working for Ventura County in 1978, I have given my job my all — and so have my co-workers. Remember this the next time you hear yet another pundit suggesting that people like us don’t deserve a salary we can support a family on and a retirement we can count on. The beach is yours to enjoy this Labor Day, and every day, because of people like us — who labor hard each day to make Ventura County beautiful for all of us.
Bob May has been working as a Maintenance Worker III at the Ventura County Harbor Department since 1995 and lives in Ventura.