The country is currently going through its second year of lifeguard shortages, forcing swimming pools across the country to shorten their opening hours, reduce capacity or close altogether. And despite social distancing, mask regulations and other relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, some pools in the capital region have not been immune to the struggle.
Schenectady and Clifton Park are just two communities struggling to fill their lifeguard positions.
“We have a good team of lifeguards at the moment, but we could definitely have a few more,” said Julie Rouse, unit manager of the Rotterdam Boys & Girls Clubhouse and water sports director of Schenectady City Pools.
The Schenectady Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs employ lifeguards for city pools, including Central Park Pool, Front Street Pool, Quackenbush Pool, and Hillhurst Pool. A few years ago, when the number of lifeguards was normal, their team consisted of around 50-60 lifeguards. Now their number is in the 30s.
“We have 35 lifeguards now and I would like to see us have 40 to 42 lifeguards,” Rouse said.
Due to necessary repairs, Hillhurst Pool will remain closed this season. The decision, made by the city of Schenectady, both disappointed the community and slightly relieved pressure to fill lifeguard positions.
“I’m always sad to see a swimming pool close because it means there are fewer opportunities in the summer for a neighborhood [to swim]”, Rouss said. “As far as the staff goes, it was definitely a little sigh of relief.”
The town of Clifton Park has faced similar challenges with its three municipal swimming pools, Country Knolls, Barney Road and Locust Lane.
Phil Barrett, the city supervisor, said pools historically end their seasons on Labor Day. But in recent years this has not been possible due to the shortage of lifeguards. Barrett also said that usually one of the pools can stay open until the end of the season, but only because the other two pools close early and those guards are recruited from the remaining pool.
The varying ages of the guards pose a problem in itself. Many high school supervisors are still finishing the school year because the swimming pools are open for the summer. For most of them, the school day ends after 2 p.m., so college-age guards are relied upon to cover the earlier hours.
Additionally, many students are needed to fill chief lifeguard and other management positions and to teach swimming lessons. But many of them have internship commitments or will be leaving for college before the end of pool season.
Lauren Sposili, 21, one of Locust Lane Pool’s oldest lifeguards, has worked there for around five years and was promoted to a lifeguard job last summer. She said she is still seeing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the number of lifeguards available. Sposili said the two-year time lapse in which lifeguard training courses were unavailable prevented teenagers from obtaining the required lifeguard certification.
“I would say the atmosphere has changed. I mean guards, we’re trying to do our best with the staff shortage, we’re all working as many hours as possible with our busy schedules. So we’re trying to help as much as we can,” Sposili said.
Lifeguards at Schenectady pools will face similar pressure. Ideally, lifeguards would work six hours a day. Due to the lack of lifeguards, however, they can now expect to work at least five 8-hour days a week. Although it’s extra work, Rouse said rescuers are ready to take on the job.
“They’re pretty upbeat and positive, and that’s something we communicate a lot about,” Rouse said. In order to protect lifeguards from excessive exhaustion, exposure to the sun and other dangers, the pools have several supervisors who will monitor the pools and guards to ensure that they are drinking enough water, getting enough rest and feel stable and stable. alert. “All supervisors are willing and ready to step into a lifeguard chair if needed.”
Pools offer various incentives to try to attract people to lifeguarding. One of the main challenges has been training. Not only are the training courses time and energy consuming, they are also expensive, costing upwards of $400 – or sometimes more for those looking to guard the beach or state park waterfront. .
“In all areas except Long Island you have to show up with an American Red Cross certification in lifeguarding, they want the waterfront extension, you need first aid CPR and DEA, so you have multiple certifications that you have to take and all of those costs,” said Ryan Clark, president of the New York State Lifeguard Corps, which employs about 1,100 lifeguards at 87 parks and campgrounds run by the Bureau of Parks. , Recreation and Historic Preservation and the State Department of Environmental Conservation. “The initial upfront cost could be prohibitive.”
In an attempt to mitigate training costs, Schenectady Pools offers a payment plan to interested lifeguards. Rather than being required to pay for the training course upfront, they have the option to pay gradually over time, reducing the financial burden.
Additionally, the American Red Cross is lending a helping hand to pools in the Capital Region, knowing how struggling their businesses are.
“Now many facilities are faced with recruiting, hiring and training 100% of the staff needed to operate safely – including lifeguards, water safety instructors and managers,” Abigail Adams said. , Regional Director of Communications for the American Red Cross Eastern New York Region. in a report.
Saratoga County partnered with the American Red Cross to offer free lifeguard training classes for teens 15 and older last May and early June at Ballston Spa High School and Locust Lane Pool in Clifton Park. Barrett was happy to see 28 participants and looks forward to hopefully offering this free opportunity in the future.
Competition with other industries has also proven to be a challenge.
“Currently, staffing shortages extend beyond the aquatic industry and increased competition for workers has made it difficult for aquatic facilities to hire and retain staff,” Adams said.
As other companies, such as Target and Costco, raise their starting salaries, New York City pools and beaches are struggling to attract potential hires because they can easily find less physically strenuous jobs for the same or higher salary.
“With the significant increases the minimum wage has gotten over the years — and, really, rightfully so — we’ve really erased our competitive edge,” Clark said. “You can get a job at Costco for $17 – you don’t need to save someone’s life, you don’t need to be fit, you don’t need to know first aid in CPR or whatever, so I think the job had become less attractive for the money.
To combat this, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul announced a major pay raise for lifeguards in the state on Wednesday. Previously, the starting pay rate for lifeguards working at New York State Park beaches and pools in upstate New York, as well as campgrounds and day-use beaches in Department of Environmental Conservation, was $14.95 an hour. Now, after a 34% raise, they will earn $20 an hour.
“We’re so grateful that she realized what a problem it was — putting lifeguards in chairs this summer,” Clark said.
Lifeguards are needed more than ever across the country.
“There are drownings happening day after day in the same places and that’s something that we really need to work together, not just in our own community and backyards, but really on all levels because it’s is a national problem,” Rouse said. .
But becoming a lifeguard will not only help swimming pools struggling to stay open, but also teach skills that can be used in other areas of life outside of the workplace. Sposili emphasized the importance of these skills in the community at a pool party or barbecue, for example. Something can go wrong in any of these scenarios, but no one present may know what to do.
“Having that skill set from lifeguard training along with CPR and first aid can help someone you love or someone you’re close to,” Sposili said.