They were singing along with the well-known Calypso tune, feet flying off the swimming pool floor and back again, weighted arms lifting high over their heads as they swayed to the rhythms pulsing from the boom box out across the water.
The water aerobics teacher—Yassir Chadly, 53, about to lose the job he’s held for 17 years in Berkeley’s recreation department—was demonstrating the moves on dry land and describing them so the blind student could fit with ease into the West Berkeley Swim Center class.
At Tuesday’s 2 p.m. session conversation and giggles flowed with the movements of the dozen students at class, anxious to tell a reporter that another 10 of their regular classmates, who had met at the class, were off together in Yosemite at a city of Berkeley camp.
“Yassir builds community,” participants at the West Campus pool said. The thought was echoed in calls and letters to the Planet from swimmers at King, Willard and Berkeley High pools, expressing gratitude to the city worker and outrage that he faces a demotion in his job.
“I plant love and get love back,” Chadly, a teacher, lifeguard, musician and imam at a small North Oakland mosque, told the Planet.
Two years ago, according to Chadly’s boss, Scott Ferris, youth and recreation services manager, the recreation department decided to restructure the department to save money. Chadly’s 50 percent time “career” position was eliminated in the last budget, Ferris told the Planet.
“We’re restructuring some of our programs to better serve our residents,” Ferris said.
Meanwhile, three 75 percent supervisor positions are being created in the department. Chadly told the Planet he was invited to apply for a supervisor post, but was informed that he did not get the job.
The alternative offered has been a demotion: work as an hourly employee.
According to David Hodgkins, Human Resources manager, Chadly currently earns $20.72 per hour. If he accepts the hourly position with the city, his pay will be cut to $19.35 per hour. Both figures include a city contribution to benefits valued at about 7 percent of the salary.
Chadly now generally works more than the 20 hours he is guaranteed as a “career” employee—paid at an hourly rate beyond the 20 hours—and works full time during the summer.
In the hourly employee position he is being offered, however, Chadly will no longer work a guaranteed minimum number of hours, Hodgkins said.
(As a point of comparison, a person in the youth and recreation manager position earns between $7,300 and $8,800 per month, more than twice as much as Chadly earns when working full time at his hourly rate. And the director of parks, recreation and waterfront earns between $10,500 and $14,500 per month. The manager and director also get about 50 percent more than their salary in health and retirement benefits.)
Unlike most other city employees, lifeguards/instructors are not part of a union. “There’s no one to represent me,” Chadly said.
“It’s tough to know there are workers who are like step children of the workforce in Berkeley,” said Carlos Rivera, communications director for Service Employees International Union 1021.
The Berkeley Housing Authority just announced it would lay off 13 people, leaving the BHA workers, represented by SEIU 1021, in a very different situation.
Another swimmer, Janet McColl, wrote the Planet, comparing Chadly’s situation to the BHA workers, who, she says “won’t lose an hour of time and will simply be moved into other departments.”
And, according to a report written by City Manager Phil Kamlarz, if the BHA workers are moved into positions where they get pay cuts, they will receive their current pay rate for a year.
Chadly not only brings people together in the classes he teaches, he manages to create community among lap swimmers, according to Peter Seidman, who swims at King Pool.
He introduces swimmers to each other when they share a lane and chooses the lanes for the swimmers he knows so that they are compatible with the person they’re sharing the lane with, Seidman said in a phone interview.
Another touch Chadly, a Sufi teacher, brings to his work, is that he greets each person with a bit of wisdom, Seidman said.
“He goes so far beyond being the bored lifeguard, watching bodies swimming in the pool,” he added.
Another swimmer, Summer Brenner, collected 110 signatures in support of Chadly at the West Campus pool and delivered them to the mayor’s office on Wednesday.
Cisco DeVries, Mayor Tom Bates’ chief of staff, told the Planet that while the mayor is aware of Chadly’s situation, he is unable to get involved. There’s an ongoing personnel process and the mayor’s not part of the process, DeVries said.
In a phone interview, Brenner praised Chadly. “He makes everyone feel comfortable,” she said, pointing especially to the way in which he brings disabled and obese people into the community he builds in his classes. “What he gives us is so much beyond a job.”