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Lifeguard Shortage Imperils Summer Swims at Public Pools

Cities and towns across the nation are reducing their hours or closing pools altogether because they cannot staff enough lifeguards. Reasons for the shortage vary but are related to fallout from the pandemic.

A lifegaurd chair sits empty in Bethlehem, Pa., as officials around the Lehigh Valley say there's a shortage of lifeguards this year. For cities like Bethlehem, that may mean some pools stay closed this season.
Rick Kintzel/The Morning Call/TNS
City pools across the nation are announcing reduced hours or seasonal closures due to a national shortage in lifeguards. Even as pandemic restrictions are loosening, pools in Wisconsin, Connecticut, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states have announced adjustments to their usual seasonal schedules, disrupting another year of summer plans with local repercussions from the global coronavirus pandemic.

Cities and towns are all reporting the same issue: They need more lifeguards before their facilities can open fully or at all.

“We have been actively recruiting, but so far we have not had enough applications to fill the open lifeguard positions,” Tony Pehle, Parks and Recreation director for Sparks, Nev., told the local TV news station. The Sun Valley Aquatic Center in Lewisville, Texas, needs 30 lifeguards to fully open for summer, but they currently just have one on staff with a few others in the hiring process. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board reported an even bigger gap, needing 80 hires to match their usual levels.

Lifeguard numbers have been declining for years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were approximately 31,000 less lifeguards, ski patrol and other recreational protective service workers in 2020 than there were in 2018. The Federal Reserve of St. Louis also reports a steep decline in labor force participation of 16- to 19-year-olds from 2000 to 2011, and the numbers have remained low since. But the number of lifeguards has dropped even further in the past year.

Sarah Chillo, aquatics manager for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, reported that year-to-year retention is much lower than previous years. “We normally retain about 55 to 60 percent of our lifeguards from one year to the next,” she told KARE11. “This year our retention rate is 12 percent.”

When Fond du Lac, Wisc., announced that its city pools will reduce hours due to the lifeguard shortage, there was a mixed response from residents on the city’s Facebook page.

Many blamed the problem on the unemployed not wanting to work; others blamed the local government for not paying workers enough, or not managing their application period well enough. Others said the problem stemmed from residents endangering workers by not wearing masks and for losing perspective that a global pandemic is much more threatening than a closed pool.

The shortage of lifeguards is not a result of any single one of these factors, “but COVID enhanced it,” explained Council Bluffs, Iowa, Aquatics Director Mike Bond.

Several key factors have contributed to the lifeguard shortage. First, teen workers, who are usually the target audience for lifeguard jobs, are in high demand this summer as industries of all kinds experience a worker shortage. Second, public pool managers typically recruit by visiting local high schools, but could not call on students in person because they were attending school remotely.

Third, many pools were also unable to hold lifeguard certification programs last year due to COVID-19, reducing the number of certified guards this summer. Meanwhile, the pandemic has led many workers, including those who were formerly lifeguards, to re-evaluate their careers and change job types as they re-enter the workforce.

But public pools are still optimistic that they can reach their desired numbers to provide full services to their residents by the end of the summer. Some pools, like those in Allegheny County, Pa., are incentivizing the job by increasing the hourly wage and offering reimbursement for the certification course.

Pool staff across the nation, including Kelly Lewis, aquatics coordinator for Sherwood, Ark., are just hoping to have enough lifeguards so that residents can have something to look forward to over the next several months.

“After the year of 2020, we just want everybody to be able to relax and just enjoy the summer this year,” Lewis  said.
Zoe is the digital editor for Governing.
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