Saturday, October 1, 2022
Home BUSINESS US pools close, run out of lifeguards amid labor shortages

US pools close, run out of lifeguards amid labor shortages

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Manager Ashley Ford walked the perimeter of one of Indianapolis’s five open pools, watching kids as they jumped off a diving board or plunged into the water from a curved slide. Four lifeguards, whistles at the ready, watched from their high chairs positioned around the water.

With a dozen city pools closed due to lifeguard shortages, families sometimes line up more than an hour before the one in Frederick Douglass Park opens, Ford said. Many days, it reaches its capacity.

A national lifeguard shortage exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted communities like Indianapolis to cut pools and hours. Elsewhere in the United States, swim areas do not have attendants.

That has left some Americans with fewer or more risky options, even as a significant portion of the nation experiences a second heat wave in as many weeks. Public health experts say the risk of drowning drops significantly when lifeguards are present.

“That’s the most important thing, making everyone safe,” Ford said.

The American Lifesaving Association estimates that the shortage affects a third of American swimming pools. Bernard J. Fisher II, director of health and safety for the association, expects that to rise to half of all pools by August, when many teen lifeguards return to school.

“It’s a mess,” Fisher said.

Summer shortages aren’t unusual, but U.S. pools are also dealing with the fallout from early in the pandemic, when they closed and lifeguard certification stopped, Fisher said. The starting salary lags behind many other jobs, though some cities are increasing incentives.

Indy Parks and Recreation has 100 lifeguards on staff this year when it would normally have twice as many, said Ford, who worked for the agency for 20 years. Even as lifeguards from neighboring closed pools fill open facilities, pools in Indianapolis are still required to close for an hour-long lunch and cleaning break each day.

When a local pool isn’t open, youngsters can swim in places without lifeguards, Fisher said. That can result in more drownings, which disproportionately affect people of color. In the US, black people under the age of 29 are 1.5 times more likely to drown compared to white Americans of the same age. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some 330,000 people enroll in the American Red Cross lifesaving course each year. That figure dropped as many pools closed due to the pandemic, but it is now rising, Jenelle Eli, senior director of media relations for the American Red Cross, said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Indy Parks requires its lifeguards to pass a course in which they swim 100 yards, stay afloat for one minute without using their hands, and retrieve a 10-pound object from the bottom of a pool. Starting pay is $15 an hour, up from $13 an hour earlier this year. Those who stay through the season will receive a $100 retention bonus, Boyd said.

“I’ve tried to get some of my friends who want to get a summer job and want to have money in their pockets,” said second-year lifeguard Donald Harris, 17. “They just said being a lifeguard is not for them.”

In Indiana state parks, lifeguards are paid $11 per hour. All 37 facilities in the state remain open, but some operate limited hours, said Terry Coleman, director of the Indiana Division of State Parks. Many Indiana state parks also have shallow swimming areas without lifeguards, Coleman said.

“We’re looking at potential incentives for maybe the 2023 rec season, but nothing concrete yet,” he said.

In Maine, several state parks began the season without lifeguards, and visitors are told at the park entrance when lifeguards are not on duty, said Jim Britt, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The state pays lifeguards about $16 an hour.

“It’s a concern,” Britt said. “There are no two ways to do it. We want first responders to be there and on duty.”

Chicago, which has one of the largest aquatics programs in the country (77 public pools and 22 beaches serving a population of nearly 2.75 million), pushed back opening day for pools from June 24 to July 5. .

“Chicago families rely on our parks programs during the summer, so we’re not giving up,” Chicago Park District Superintendent Rosa Escareño said in a news release.

Escareño attributed the shortage in part to “mass quitting,” referring to post-pandemic labor shortages.

Chicago Park District pays $15.88 an hour and is now offering $600 bonuses, up from $500 in May, to new hires who stay over the summer. It also relaxed residency requirements, meaning applicants don’t have to live in the city.

A cause of applicant hesitation unrelated to the pandemic may be a lifeguard sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Chicago Park District last year.

Escareño said the organization has since strengthened its accountability and reporting systems.

“I think right now, the most important thing is to ensure that we open safely and that we put safety at the highest priority, not just the safety of our residents, but also the safety of our employees,” he said.

Associated Press reporter David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report. Savage reported from Chicago. She and Rodgers are staff members of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.


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