US pools close, go without lifeguards amid labor shortages

INDIANAPOLIS ( Associated Press) – Manager Ashley Ford walked across the perimeter of one of Indianapolis’ five open pools and watched children jump off a diving board or walk from a curved slide into the water. Four lifeguards, whistles ready, watched from their high chairs stationed around the water.

With a dozen of the city’s swimming pools closed due to a lifeguard shortage, families sometimes stand in line for more than an hour before the one opens at Frederick Douglass Park, Ford said. Many days it reaches capacity.

A national lifeguard shortage exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted communities like Indianapolis to cut back on pools and hours. Elsewhere in the United States, swimming areas go without servants.

This has left some Americans with fewer or riskier options, even though a significant portion of the country is enduring a second heatwave in as many weeks. Public health experts say the risk of drowning decreases significantly when lifeguards are present.

“It’s my biggest thing, to make everyone safe,” Ford said.

The American Lifeguard Association estimates the shortfall has an impact on a third of American swimming pools. Bernard J. Fisher II, director of health and safety at the association, expects it to grow to half of all swimming pools by August, when many teenage lifeguards return to school.

“It’s a disaster,” Fisher said.

Summer shortages are not uncommon, but U.S. swimming pools are also dealing with the fallout earlier in the pandemic, when they closed and ceased lifeguard certification, Fisher said. Starting wages are behind many other jobs, although some cities are increasing incentives.

Indy Parks and Recreation employs 100 lifeguards this year, while it would normally have twice as many, said Ford, who has worked for the agency for 20 years. Even while lifeguards from closed neighboring pools pick up the open facilities, pools in Indianapolis still have to close every day for an hour-long lunch and cleaning break.

When a local pool is not open, young people can go swimming in places without lifeguards, Fisher said. This can lead to more drownings, affecting people of color disproportionately. In the US, black people under 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.

About 330,000 people enroll in the American Red Cross’ lifeguard course each year. That figure has shrunk as many swimming pools have closed due to the pandemic but are 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 track in which they swim 100 meters, tread water for a minute without using their hands and pick up a 10-pound object from the bottom of a pool. Initial payment is $ 15 per hour, at $ 13 per hour earlier this year. Those who stay through the season will receive a $ 100 retention bonus, Boyd said.

“I was trying to get some of my friends who want a summer job and money in their pockets,” said second-year lifeguard Donald Harris, 17. “They just said lifeguards are not for them.”

At Indiana State Parks, lifeguards are paid $ 11 per hour. All of the state’s 37 facilities remain open, but some operate during limited hours, says Terry Coleman, director of the Indiana State Parks division. In addition, many Indiana state parks have shallow swimming areas without lifeguards, Coleman said.

“We are looking at possible incentives for maybe the 2023 leisure season, but nothing in stone yet,” he said.

In Maine, several state parks began the season without lifeguards, and visitors are informed at the park’s entrance when no lifeguard is on duty, said Jim Britt, spokesman for Maine’s 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 about it. We want lifeguards to be there and on duty. ”

Chicago, which boasts one of the nation’s largest aquatic programs – 77 public swimming pools and 22 beaches serving a population of nearly 2.75 million – has moved the opening day for swimming pools from June 24 to July 5.

“Chicago families rely on our park programs during the summer, so we do not give up,” Rosa Escareño, superintendent of Chicago Park District, said in a news release.

Escareño attributed the scarcity in part to ‘mass resignation’ – referring to post-pandemic labor shortages.

Chicago Park District pays $ 15.88 hourly and now offers $ 600 bonuses, starting at $ 500 in May, to new employees staying through the summer. It has also relaxed residency requirements, meaning applicants do not have to live in the city.

One cause for applicant’s unrelated 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 at the moment, the most important thing is to ensure that we open safely, and that we place the highest priority on safety, not only the safety of our residents, but also the safety of our employees,” she said.

Associated Press reporter David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report. Savage reported from Chicago. She and Rodgers are corps members for the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that puts journalists in local newsrooms to report on topical issues.

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