Swimming pools in the US are closing, leaving lifeguards without a workforce

INTANAPORE (AP) – Director Ashley Ford walked around one of Indianapolis’s five outdoor pools, watching the children jump from a diving board or enter the water from a curved slide. Four lifeguards, with whistles ready, watched from their high chairs that were placed around the water.

With a dozen of the city’s pools closed due to a lack of lifeguards, families sometimes queue for more than an hour before it opens in Frederick Douglass Park, Ford said. Many days, it reaches capacity.

A national lifeguard shortage exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted communities such as Indianapolis to reduce pools and opening hours. Elsewhere in the United States, bathing areas are unaccompanied.

This has left some Americans with fewer or more dangerous choices, even as a significant part of the country endures a second heat wave in so many weeks. Public health experts say the risk of drowning is greatly reduced when there are lifeguards.

“This is my biggest thing, it’s to make everyone safe,” Ford said.

The American Lifeguard Association estimates that the shortage affects one-third of U.S. swimming pools. Bernard J. Fisher II, the union’s director of health and safety, expects it to increase 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 experiencing the effects of an earlier pandemic, when they closed and lifeguard certification ceased, Fisher said. Initial pay lags behind many other jobs, although some cities are increasing incentives.

Indy Parks and Recreation has 100 lifeguards on staff this year, and that would normally be double that, said Ford, who has worked in the service for 20 years. Although lifeguards from indoor swimming pools increase outdoor facilities, Indianapolis pools need to be closed for an hourly lunch and cleaning break each day.

When a local pool is not open, young people can go swimming in places without lifeguards, Fisher said. This can lead to more drownings, which disproportionately affect the colored ones. In the United States, blacks under the age of 29 are 1.5 times more likely to drown than white Americans of the same age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 330,000 people enroll in American Red Cross lifesaving courses each year. That number has shrunk as many pools have closed due to the pandemic, but it is now rising, said Jenel Eli, senior director of media relations for the American Red Cross in a statement to the Associated Press.

Indy Parks requires lifeguards to take a 100-yard swim, tap water for a minute without using their hands, and pull a 10-pound object from the bottom of a swimming pool. The initial fee is $ 15 per hour, up from $ 13 an hour earlier this year. Those who stay during the season will receive a $ 100 retention bonus, Boyd said.

“I tried to find some of my friends who want to find a summer job and want to have money in their pockets,” said second lifeguard Donald Harris, 17. “They just said that lifeguarding is not for them.”

In Indiana State Parks, lifeguards are paid $ 11 an hour. All 37 state facilities remain open, but some operate part-time, said Terry Coleman, director of the Indiana Department of Political Parks. Many Indiana state parks also have shallow, non-lifeguard bathing areas, Coleman said.

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

In Maine, several state parks have started the season without lifeguards, and visitors are informed at the park entrance when there is no lifeguard, 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 about it. We want lifeguards to be there and on duty. “

Chicago, which boasts one of the country’s largest water projects – 77 public swimming pools and 22 beaches serving a population of nearly 2.75 million – has pushed the opening day for the pools back to July 5 from June 24.

“Chicago families rely on our programs in the park during the summer, so we do not give up,” Chicago Park District Superintendent Rosa Escarenio told a news release.

Escareño attributed the rarity in part to a “mass resignation” – referring to labor shortages following the pandemic.

The Chicago Park District pays $ 15.88 per hour and now offers a $ 600 bonus, up from $ 500 in May, to new hires staying overnight. It also relaxed the residence requirements, which means applicants do not have to live in the city.

One cause of hesitation for applicants unrelated to the pandemic could be a lifeguard’s sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Chicago Park area last year.

Escareño said the agency 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 give the highest priority to security, not only to the safety of our residents, but also to the safety of our employees,” he said.

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

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