Expect lifeguard shortages this summer
Memorial Day kicked off the official beginning of the swimming season, but not all public pools were prepared to open their gates due to a nationwide lifeguard shortage.
From Southern California to South Carolina, from Austin to Akron, public swimming venues across the country are feeling the pinch.
According to both the American Lifeguard Association (ALA) and the YMCA, the problem is very real. Wyatt Werneth, spokesperson for the ALA says that it’s happening for a variety of reasons.
“A lack of interest, the pandemic, the halt to the foreign exchange, people aging out, all these are the perfect storm,' Werneth said.
While some of these factors existed prior to the pandemic, there is no doubt that the ramifications of 2020 exacerbated the situation. For example, Covid restrictions put a lot of lifeguard training on hold, with social distancing limiting lifeguarding class sizes.
“We couldn’t get in close quarters obviously or get out and train, and we have to train in pools, we have to grab people and pull them and learn how to handle swimmers, it’s up close and personal,” Werneth said.
According to Stephanie Shook, Red Cross aquatics program manager, between January and April of 2020 the Red Cross certified only 51,811 lifeguards in the country, compared to 98,570 the same period the year before.
But even with life beginning to return to normal, aquatics facilities are still having trouble attracting candidates.
“We’re starting some of the trainings now. But we’re also seeing not as many people showing up for the tryouts as normal,” Werneth said.
Jim Durkee, vice president of AAA Pool Services in Virginia Beach, said that they’ve only managed to secure 75 of the needed 250 lifeguards for the pools that they manage, which has forced them to keep two thirds of their pools closed every week.
Durkee says he thinks the shortage has to do with the pandemic, as well.
Because of the pandemic, “a lot of the kids and lifeguards that we’ve employed in the past basically had the last year of their life ripped away from them. And a lot of them say, ‘Hey, I want to have a normal summer before I go back to school in the fall.’ “ But another reason for the shortage is related to travel restrictions.
In June 2020, former President Donald Trump suspended new J-1 visa applications. This presidential order was extended in December and expired in April 2021.
“Typically, we have a lot of overseas staff that come to patrol our beaches and our water parks in the summer, and because of the pandemic, those staff are not available to come over on their visas,” said Lindsay Mondick, water safety specialist for YMCA.
And according to Sabeena Hickman, president and CEO of the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance, there’s also currently a backlog in the processing of temporary J-1 work visas that typically brings in summer workers from abroad to fill jobs. She said that Covid-19 travel restrictions limited who could enter the country, and “embassies were shut down. People weren’t in the office processing the visas. So I think that’s more of the leading factor.”
Furthermore, according to a PHTA Alert, “generous unemployment benefit assistance programs coupled with the fact that many potential U.S. employees are reluctant to seek jobs that require direct interaction with the public have further complicated the labor shortage.”
Some have noted that even those prospective lifeguards that do apply, simply can’t swim very well.
“We’re at a point where we might be able to get 20 or 30 people into a training class that want to work as a lifeguard, and only two or three of them can pass the swim test,” said Jim Tarantino, Director of Recreation for Milwaukee County Parks, which is only opening four of its 12 pools this summer because of lifeguard staffing.
Life Time, one of the largest employers of lifeguards nationwide which typically employs between 3,000 to 4,000 lifeguards at its 110 health cubs, has turned to social media to get the word out.
“The lifeguard shortage is very real, especially here in the Phoenix market, because we’re opening up all of our pools right now,” said Jackie Flores, Regional Aquatics Manager at Life Time. “We are doing a big marketing play via social media, and we’re hoping to advertise some of the benefits of being a team member at Life Time including a complimentary membership, paid trainings, and best of all they don’t need any experience to be a team member with us, we’ll teach you how to do everything.”
In Austin, Texas, there were only 150 lifeguards for the entire city by the end of May - just 20% of the 750 needed for full coverage. The city alerted community members that it did not have enough lifeguards to open all of its pools for the beginning of June citing the need to train, certify and hire more candidates.
And the problem isn’t limited to public swimming pools, either, but is also occurring at lakes and beaches.
On May 21, Park Director Guy Smith announced that not one Milwaukee beach will have lifeguards this summer.
Many municipalities are offering incentives to get more lifeguards to work, with wages going up everywhere, and bonuses for referring friends.
Easton’s Beach in Newport, Rhode Island, is offering up to $20 per hour for lifeguards, and beach employees can also get an additional $3 per hour added to their hourly rate for working on weekends through Labor Day, according to Newport’s website. The city will also reportedly offer reimbursement for lifeguards undergoing training programs for certifications for CPR and first aid, according to the Newport Daily News.
The St. Louis, Missouri Parks and Recreation Department has been going to churches, rec centers and high schools to tell people they have good employment opportunities. They also have an employee referral incentive program.
But despite active headhunting and such incentives, demand for lifeguards is not being met by supply, and the need is not expected to recover any time soon.
'It’s going to be a long process. It’s probably going to take us a good year to really bounce back from this.” said Jodi Jay, the City of Austin’s aquatic division manager.
Lifeguard Training with the American Red Cross Photo Credit: www.redcross.org