$1,450 to swim in Neptune Pool? Hearst Castle workers, volunteers deserve a free dip

I think it is wonderful that the Hearst Castle Foundation is offering opportunities to swim in the Neptune Pool to those fortunate few who have the money to purchase pricey tickets. (The tickets will cost $950, in addition to the minimum cost of $500 to join the Foundation.)

It sounds like a terrific fundraiser for Hearst Castle.

But while foundation members now have the opportunity for “exclusive swims,” hard-working employees and volunteers are being denied a much-beloved perk. Before the Neptune Pool was closed for repairs five years ago, Hearst Castle employees and volunteers were able to swim in the pool for two hours once a year. It was a morale booster, a way of saying “thanks” for a job well done. Now that opportunity has been taken away.

The ugly truth is that Hearst Castle employees, who are employees of the State Parks Department, are very poorly paid. The average guide is paid between $30,000 to $40,000 per year. Once they pay for their uniforms and for gasoline for their long commutes, employee paychecks don’t stretch far in a county known for its high cost of living.

Yet these are the people who keep the castle running. They are the ones who work in the hot sun all summer long. They conduct tours in a sweltering, non-air-conditioned building where they climb hundreds of stairs each day. They work late during the Christmas season when evening tours are held every night. They often face a treacherous drive down the hillside in foggy conditions, and then face long commutes home — only to return to the hilltop the next day for even more tours.

The volunteer Living History docents receive no compensation whatsoever. Many drive from Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Valley or the Bay Area to volunteer two to three nights each month — and they pay for their own gasoline and hotels.

The schedules that docents work prevent them from eating dinner, and they work without even a coffee break, for the “food and beverages” they supposedly are consuming while working are plastic props. Yet both paid employees and volunteer docents work hard because they share a love for Hearst Castle, for the magnificent art within it, and for the glorious gardens surrounding it. They work hard and take pride in their work. And the biggest perk they have received over the years has been an annual night of swimming in a beautiful, yet unheated and cold pool.

My husband and I have worked as Living History docents at Hearst Castle for 12 years. We have worked hundreds of volunteer hours and have been fortunate enough to swim in the Neptune Pool several times. Although we could afford to purchase tickets to the “exclusive” foundation swim event, we won’t. It is a matter of principle. The swim opportunities should not be restricted only to the privileged and wealthy – but should also be available to the employees and volunteers who work hard to make the castle a success.

Might I remind your readers that William Randolph Hearst was a very wealthy man, but he was not an elitist. He purchased lovely gifts for his employees and their families at Christmastime. Hearst didn’t begin his evening movies until the kitchen employees finished their work and were able to join him and his guests in the theater.

Maybe State Parks management should follow the lead of “The Chief” himself and show a little appreciation for the people who are working hard to make the castle succeed.

Over the years, Hearst Castle has lost many dedicated guides and volunteers, and it currently struggles to maintain enough paid and unpaid workers to keep the tours running during busy seasons. We encourage the Hearst Castle management to please reinstate employee “swim nights” before they lose even more employees and volunteers. This slap in the face may be the final straw for many dedicated workers.

Yvonne Smith volunteers at Hearst Castle as a living history docent. She lives in Atascadero.

The Hearst Castle Foundation did not play a role in discontinuing employee swim nights. This viewpoint has been updated to reflect that.

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