Uniform discrimination: City of Toronto lifeguards demand equality in work gear

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Photo: flickr/David Crane

If you've ever had to bear the scorching heat of a Toronto summer, you know that city pools are an essential part of the season. Torontonians flock to pools and water parks to find some relief, pools are like oases in the urban desert. 

This year will be no different, except that pool attendants and lifeguards are asking for one small change: a new equity policy for their uniforms.

As it stands, all City of Toronto aquatic staff, lifeguards, and swim instructors are issued the following: a two-piece uniform, consisting of a singlet and swim shorts.

For the male staff, that's all they'll need for their summer job. For female staff however, another mandatory element of their uniform is a bathing suit, which is not provided. They have to buy their own.

Given that a basic polyester bathing suit sells for about $80, the costs can add up, especially for returning lifeguards who will likely have to buy a new suit every summer.

Daina Pidwerbeski started a Change.org petition asking the City to amend the current policy.

"I felt the need to start this petition when I needed a new swimsuit because the one I was using ripped," Pidwerbeski explained in an email. "I drove about 25 minutes to Omni swim, where lifeguards and various swim team members receive a 10 per cent discount. I left the store after spending about $80 on a new swim suit, fed up."

The petition, which currently has over 200 signatures, states that the current uniform policy is in violation of the City of Toronto Human Rights and Anti-Harassment Policy, which states "every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to employment with the City without discrimination or harassment."

"I started to talk to other female lifeguards about this and they agreed that they have spent a lot of money on swimsuits," explained Pidwerbeski, who has been a lifeguard for almost 10 years and a swim instructor for about eight years. She says that she decided to start the petition after consulting with both male and female lifeguards, as well as her Union rep. and Community Recreation Programmer.

"I called my union, CUPE Local 79, to inquire about the issue and I was informed that over the years this issue has been brought up but it 'never gains traction,'" explained Pidwerbeski. "I was encouraged to start the petition, and bring it back to the union's attention closer to bargaining times, which are at the end of the year."

Justice Stacey has been a lifeguard and swimming instructor for almost two years. As a person who identifies as trans* non-binary, they say that the bathing suit costs can be particularly burdensome.

"I know for a lot of people it's a big purchase, for me it's a big purchase," said Stacey, who explained that ideally, they'd like to purchase a swimsuit chest binder to feel more comfortable at work.

"There is a lot of extra cost having to purchase a swimsuit," said Stacey, "They don't last very long, especially because many of the pools we have are really chlorinated. And we are being expected to buy a ton of swimsuits over our years as lifeguards and there's no reimbursement at all, but it's required."

Stacey signed the petition, but noted that it "didn't seem to have a lot of awareness of trans* bodies." Nevertheless, they feel that they were able to make their voice heard through the aquatic staff Facebook group, where the petition has been circulated and discussed.

The petition asks that if the bathing suit is a mandatory part of their uniform, then staff should either be provided with a suit or issued a voucher in order to purchase one.

Pidwerbeski says that in doing research for the petition, she discovered that prior to the amalgamation of the Greater Toronto Area municipalities, Etobicoke used to provide female staff with bathing suits. However, according to Pidwerbeski, who contacted other Canadian municipalities, most cities only provide singlets to their aquatic staff.

In an email response, Howie Dayton, Director of Community Recreation for the City of Toronto, said that the City is aware of the petition, and that "all Recreation Workers are allotted the same uniform entitlement in accordance with the collective agreement. Bathing suits worn underneath the uniform is the responsibility of the employee and must meet the divisional aquatic standards."

Ella Bedard is rabble's labour intern and an associate editor at GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People.

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