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Lifeguard shortage threatens to close some beaches and pools in the Philadelphia region and down the Shore

Recruiting and hiring guards has been a challenge for years, but it’s proven particularly difficult in some spots this summer amid a nationwide lifeguard shortage that was exacerbated by the pandemic.

A lifeguard chair is pictured at Samuel Recreation Center in Philadelphia's Port Richmond section on Thursday, May 13, 2021.
A lifeguard chair is pictured at Samuel Recreation Center in Philadelphia's Port Richmond section on Thursday, May 13, 2021.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

For the second year in a row, Cape May Beach Patrol needs to hire about two dozen more lifeguards in order to open all its beaches this summer.

Recruiting and hiring guards has been a challenge for years, but it’s proven particularly difficult in some spots this summer amid a nationwide lifeguard shortage that was exacerbated by the pandemic and a seemingly endless amount of other summer job options, some of which offer higher pay and nearly all of which come with less risk.

“They can go across the street and make more money pouring coffee instead of saving lives,” said Cape May Beach Capt. Marty Franco, who is hopeful Saturday’s rookie tryout will draw in a few more guards.

Across the region, some pools and beaches have been more affected than others — including Philadelphia’s public pools, which still need 50 more lifeguards this year — due to a variety of factors, including how much they pay and whether they have strong retention of returning lifeguards.

As the summer gets underway, the lifeguard shortage has already impacted pools and beaches from Wisconsin to Texas to Washington state, shuttering some and delaying the opening of others.

Throughout the country, the shortage has been brewing for the past two decades, said Bernard J. Fisher II, director of health and safety for the American Lifeguard Association, though it got a temporary Band-Aid through the J-1 visa program that for years drew in lifeguards every summer, primarily from Eastern Europe.

Then, the Trump administration threatened to end the program, and COVID-19 struck, closing many U.S. embassies and stalling international travel.

At the same time, the pandemic caused fewer people in the U.S. to receive or renew their required lifeguard certification, he said, and its economic impacts have now led to greater competition for hourly work.

If some pools can’t open this summer, what will be lost is more than just an outlet for recreation, Fisher said. In many urban areas plagued by gun violence, the pool is a respite for children, Fisher said. And without enough lifeguards, fewer children will learn how to swim, he said, which could lead to an increase in drownings, as was reported last year.

As a 50-year veteran of the industry, “I’ve never seen [the lifeguard shortage] this bad,” Fisher said.

“What’s really bad is we’re making some mistakes. Cities, municipalities are throwing in the towel too early,” he said. “Let’s start offering free training. Let’s increase wages, referral bonuses, sign-on bonuses. Let’s target the retirees, the teachers.”

» READ MORE: Senior lifeguards are stepping in to save city pools

Philadelphia Parks and Recreation has taken some of those steps, including increasing wages and paying for some candidates’ training, to recruit 294 lifeguards as of earlier this week, said spokesperson Maita Soukup. But the city still needs nearly 50 more to open all 65 pools, a third of which stayed closed all last summer due to the shortage. It plans to release this year’s pool opening schedule by the end of June, Soukup said.

A few miles outside the city, meanwhile, the municipal pool in Chester, Delaware County, has had no issue hiring and retaining lifeguards, said Duane Lee, the city’s deputy director of parks, recreation, and public property.

“I pay them well, so we don’t have a shortage of lifeguards,” he said, noting guards start out at $15 an hour, which is more than many surrounding employers pay.

All of his guards are from the city of Chester, he said, and have established a strong rapport with the members, particularly children, for whom the pool is “a safe haven” in the summer. Those local ties also keep his employees returning, he said.

Last year was particularly difficult for hiring lifeguards and other pool staff, said Matt Frey, general manager of the Newtown, Bucks County-based Fox Pool Management, which hires for more than 100 commercial pools in Southeastern Pennsylvania and central and southern New Jersey. He expected it to be less difficult this summer, he said, with most pandemic restrictions eased and more people seemingly wanting to return to normal summer schedules and activities.

» READ MORE: It’s another COVID summer, and this time Philly-area folks are left to decide for themselves what’s safe

But “people are still reluctant to keep a job. They’re easy to quit and easy to stop working, not show up, ghost us. This is even after they put in the commitment of getting trained,” Frey said. “I’m surprised that we’re still seeing that.”

Since the pandemic started, the company has amped up its recruiting “substantially,” Frey said, posting on job boards at high schools and colleges, advertising on social media, and even targeting online ads to parents of teenagers who are looking for summer work.

So far this summer, the pace of hiring more closely resembles that of pre-pandemic years like 2018 and 2019, he said, but the company has yet to rebound to levels it saw in the mid-2010s.

At the Shore, beach patrols in Ventnor and Avalon report that they’ll have enough guards this summer.

“We’re pretty much where we need to be,” said Avalon Beach Patrol Chief Matt Wolf.

Paying first-year guards more than $19 an hour, Avalon has already recruited 30 rookies, he said, and has 102 total guards. Typically, the town averages 100 guards a summer, he added, but the patrol would like to get to 110 or more due to increased crowds.

Meanwhile in Cape May — which pays about $13 an hour — some beaches will be closed to swimmers if they don’t get enough lifeguards. That means guards on the beaches on either side of the closure will work to ensure no one goes in the water there.

“It stresses everybody out when there are closed beaches,” Franco said. “It gets dangerous, flat out. There’s no other way of putting it.”