Last week, I wrote about an ordinary man who displayed old-fashioned American values of honesty and integrity by returning $13,000 he had found in a trash bin. Today, I’d like to tell you about another American hero, an ordinary man who demonstrated old-fashioned American values of courage and common sense, and how, in the modern corporate-dominated America, he paid for doing so with his job.
Tomas Lopez worked as a lifeguard on Hallandale Beach, Florida. But he did not work for the city of Hallandale Beach, at least not directly. He was employed by Jeff Ellis Management, a private corporation hired by the city to guard the beach. Well, not the whole beach. Just one slice of it. There are surrounding parts of the beach adjacent to condominiums or simply designated as “Swim At Your Own Risk” areas.
On this particular day, beachgoers ran to Tomas to inform him a man was drowning about a few hundred feet away. Tomas immediately realized the drowning man was outside of his designated patrol area. The corporate rules made it very clear: because the man chose to swim outside of the lifeguard’s slice of the beach, Tomas was forbidden to intervene. We may never know if the corporate rulebook would have allowed Tomas to save the drowning man had the riptide dragged his body across the imaginary dividing line, into Tomas’ zone, because Tomas threw out the rulebook.
Tomas radioed in that he was leaving his post and arranged for his fellow lifeguards to watch over his slice of the beach for the brief minutes it would take to rescue the drowning man. Maybe he was thinking about the safety of several swimmers who dove in to save the struggling man, fearful these untrained Good Samaritans might be pulled underwater by the panicked swimmer. Maybe he was thinking about a man who was drowning before his eyes while he sat in the wooden lifeguard chair provided by the corporation. Maybe he was thinking about saving a human life. Maybe he wasn’t even thinking; some people do the right thing instinctively. Maybe he just used common sense.
Tomas dove into the ocean and did what he had been trained to do. I doubt he was thinking of his own safety, or the undertide, or the risk of being dragged underwater by the panicked drowning man. Tomas just displayed his courage and rescued the swimmer, who is still hospitalized in intensive care. Tomas sure as hell wasn’t thinking about his job. But the corporation was.
Jeff Ellis Management fired Tomas for saving the drowning swimmer’s life. Instead, they said, he should have called for an ambulance. Better make that a hearse, by the time it would have arrived. The Christian Science Monitor reported two other lifeguards were fired (possibly the ones who agreed to cover for him) and four more quit in protest, as a sign of solidarity (ABC News reported all six resigned).
Outsourcing public safety government jobs – police, fire, prisons, TSA, or even lifeguards – to private corporations is a bad idea. Public safety is not, and should not, be a for-profit concern. Corporations base their decisions on profitability and liability. People like Tomas act on compassion, courage, and common sense. That’s why corporations are not, and never will be, people, regardless of what Mitt Romney says.
“I’m not going to put my job over helping someone. I’m going to do what I felt was right,” Tomas said. And because of that, a man who would otherwise be dead is not.
After the public outrage over Tomas’ firing, Jeff Ellis Management offered him his job back. Despite having lost a good job in a tough economy, Tomas, 21, exhibited another old-fashioned American value: dignity. He said thanks, but no thanks.
We know what’s wrong with this country these days. Thank God there are young people like Tomas who know what’s right.