Despite “relentless” recruiting efforts, offers of free training, and a bump in hourly wages, a persistent lifeguard shortage likely will keep more than 25 of the city Parks and Recreation Department’s 68 pools closed this summer, the city said Thursday.
With lifeguard training still in progress, it was not yet certain how many pools would open, said department spokesperson Maita Soukup, but the city estimates that it will have the staffing to operate about 40 pools. Municipal pools require five lifeguards each and several maintenance attendants.
They will begin opening on a rolling basis starting the end of this month and continuing into the first few weeks of July, Soukup said. Which pools will be opened will be decided on “past pool usage, as well as neighborhood crime, health, and poverty data,” she said.
In 2019, the pools hosted 785,328 visits; in 2020, that number fell to 0.
That was courtesy of COVID-19, which was part of a “perfect storm” that had pool operators all over the country crying for help, said B.J. Fisher II, health and safety director for the American Lifeguard Association Inc.
The shortages in lifeguards are nationwide, worsening, and particularly bad this summer, he said. “The pool is dried up,” he said.
Meanwhile the national need for lifeguards is ever expanding, he added. With over 300,000 “public” pools, including those operated by YMCAs and health and swim clubs, the competition for labor is intense.
The city was offering lifeguards $15.25 an hour, up from $14.74 in 2019. But Soukup noted that Shore towns are paying guards $20 an hour.
She added that shortages are also forcing Pennsylvania’s state parks to cut back on swimming hours.
Lifeguard staffing issues in Philadelphia aren’t new. In 2019, for example, shortages caused long waits at pool gates.
But this year has been particularly challenging, here and elsewhere.
Fisher pointed out that with pool facilities shut down all over the country during the pandemic, it also was a lost year for certifying and recertifying lifeguards, required every two years.
Soukup said that while the department’s recruiting efforts were “relentless,” the coronavirus confronted the city with “unique problems.”
It had to wait until March to start recruiting; usually it begins in November. In years past, the department offered training at multiple indoor pools. This year, it had to use only one outdoor heated pool.
It takes 30 to 45 days to prepare a lifeguard to work at a pool, Soukup said, and some of the candidates in training now won’t be working a pool until next summer.
As for the summer of 2021, she said, “We are focused on making sure every Philadelphian has access to a pool and knows all the ways to cool down near their home.”