The nation is currently weathering through its second year of a lifeguard shortage, forcing pools around the country to either shorten their hours, reduce capacity, or close altogether. And despite social distancing, mask regulations and other COVID-19 restrictions loosening up, some Capital Region pools 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 right now but we could probably definitely stand to have a few more,” said Julie Rouse, the unit director of the Rotterdam Boys & Girls Clubhouse and aquatics director of Schenectady City Pools.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady employ the lifeguards for the city’s pools, including the Central Park Pool, the Front Street Pool, the Quackenbush Pool and the Hillhurst Pool. A few years ago, when lifeguard numbers were normal, their team would be made up of approximately 50 to 60 lifeguards. Now their numbers are in the 30s.
“We have 35 lifeguards now and I would love to see us have 40 to 42 lifeguards,” said Rouse.
Due to needed repairs, Hillhurst Pool will remain closed this season. The decision, made by the city of Schenectady, brought both disappointment to the community and slight relief to the strain of filling lifeguard positions.
“I’m always sad to see a swimming pool close because that means that there is less of an opportunity in the summer for a neighborhood [to swim],” said Rouse. “As far as staffing goes, it was certainly a little sigh of relief.”
The Town of Clifton Park has faced similar challenges with its three municipal pools, Country Knolls, Barney Road and Locust Lane.
Phil Barrett, the town supervisor, said historically the pools end their seasons on Labor Day. But in recent years, this has not been possible due to the shortage of lifeguards. Barrett also said usually one of the pools can remain open until the end of the season, but only because the other two pools close early and those guards are recruited to the remaining pool.
The varying ages of guards pose an issue within itself. Many high school student guards are still finishing the school year as the pools are opening for the summer. For most of them, the school day ends past 2 p.m., therefore college-aged guards are relied on to cover the hours before that.
Additionally, many college students are needed to fill head lifeguard and other management positions and to teach swim lessons. But many of them have internship commitments or will leave for college before the pool season concludes.
Lauren Sposili, 21, one of the oldest lifeguards at Locust Lane Pool, has worked there for about five years and was promoted to a head guard position last summer. She said she is still seeing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the number of lifeguards available. Sposili said that the two-year gap of time when lifeguard training courses weren’t available restricted adolescents from getting the required lifeguard certification.
“I definitely would say the atmosphere has changed. I mean, the guards, we’re trying to do our best with the shortage of employees, we’re all working as many hours as we can with our busy schedules. So we’re trying to kind of help out as much as we can,” Sposili said.
Lifeguards at Schenectady’s pools will undergo a similar strain. Ideally, the lifeguards would be working six hours each day. Because of the lack of lifeguards, however, they can now expect to work a minimum of five 8-hour days every week. Although it will be extra work, Rouse said the lifeguards are ready to take on the job.
“They’re pretty upbeat and positive, and it’s something we communicate a lot about,” said Rouse. In order to protect the lifeguards from over-exhaustion, sun exposure, and other dangers, the pools have multiple supervisors who will be watching over the pools and the guards to make sure they are drinking enough water, getting enough rest, and feeling steady and alert. “All supervisors are willing and ready to step up into a lifeguard chair if need be.”
The pools are providing various incentives to try to draw people to lifeguarding. One of the key challenges has been training. Not only do training courses take a lot of time and energy, but they are also expensive, costing upwards of $400 — or sometimes more for those looking to lifeguard at a State Park beach or waterfront.
“In all of the regions except for Long Island, you have to show up having American Red Cross certification in lifeguarding, they want the waterfront extension, you need first aid CPR, and AED so you have multiple certifications that you need to take and all of those cost (s),” said Ryan Clark, the president of the New York State Lifeguard Corps, which employs approximately 1,100 lifeguards at 87 parks and campgrounds managed by the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and Department of Environmental Conservation. “The initial cost up-front could be prohibitive.”
To try to mitigate the expense of the training, the Schenectady pools are offering a payment plan to interested lifeguards. Rather than being required to pay for the training course upfront, they have the option of paying gradually over time, lessening the financial burden.
Additionally, the American Red Cross is lending a helping hand to Capital Region pools, knowing how much their businesses are struggling.
“Now, many facilities are faced with recruiting, hiring and training 100% of the staff required to operate safely – including lifeguards, Water Safety Instructors and managers,” Abigail Adams, regional communications director of the American Red Cross’s Eastern New York Region, said in a statement.
Saratoga County partnered with the American Red Cross to offer free lifeguard training classes to adolescents 15 and older this past May and early June at the Ballston Spa High School and Clifton Park’s Locust Lane Pool. 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, staff shortages go beyond the aquatic industry and the 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 wages, New York pools and beaches are finding it difficult to draw in potential hires, as they can easily find less physically laborious jobs for the same or higher pay.
“With the significant increases that minimum wage has gotten over the years — and, really, deservedly so — we had our competitive advantage really erased,” said Clark. “You can get a job at Costco for $17 — you don’t need to save somebody’s life, you don’t need to be fit, you don’t need to know first aid CPR or anything, so I think the job had become less attractive for the money.”
To combat this, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul announced a significant pay increase for state lifeguards on Wednesday. Previously, the starting pay rate for lifeguards working at upstate New York State Park beaches and pools and Department of Environmental Conservation campgrounds and day-use beaches was $14.95 per hour. Now, after a 34% increase, they will be making $20 per hour.
“We’re so appreciative that she realized what an issue this was — getting lifeguards into chairs this summer,” said Clark.
Lifeguards are needed across the nation now more than ever before.
“There are drownings that are happening day after day after day in the same locations and that is something that we really need to work together, not only in our own community and backyard but really across the board because it’s a national problem,” said Rouse.
But becoming a lifeguard will not only help pools struggling to stay open, it will also teach skills that can be utilized in other areas of life, outside the workplace. Sposili emphasized the importance of such skills in the community at a pool party or a barbeque, for example. Something may go wrong in one of those scenarios, but there may not be someone present that knows what to do.
“Having that skill set of the lifeguard training as well as the CPR and first aid can help someone you love or someone you’re close to,” Sposili said.