DELMAR – Swimming against the tide of a nationwide lifeguard shortage, the Town of Bethlehem said it has hired a sufficient force of lifeguards to open the Elm Avenue Park pool complex on June 9 for the 2023 season that runs through Aug. 27 and to keep the pool complex operating throughout.
However, Bethlehem Town Parks and Recreation Administrator Jason Gallo said that although he is proud of having sufficient lifeguards for opening day, the town faces a shortage compared to prior years.
Last summer, 40,000 people visited the pool complex over the season, and the complex is down four lifeguards from 2022 and six lifeguards from 2021. To date, 27 lifeguards have been hired, and Gallo is still looking to hire at least 10 more.
With the current 27 lifeguards, the pool complex‘s lifeguard chairs can be fully staffed, but it leaves less flexibility for schedule changes.
The general public swim hours are currently scheduled for noon-8 p.m. daily through Aug. 5, but it changes after that until closing day to noon-7 p.m.
With a smaller pool of guards, the flexibility must come from closing sections of the pool during times of limited staffing. A written protocol exists for determining the order in which areas are shut down due to shortages.
According to the American Lifeguard Association, last year 33 percent of America’s public pools remained shuttered or opened only sporadically due to the lifeguard shortage, and the trend is continuing into 2023.
“We never considered that the pool wouldn’t be open, but we do consider ourselves fortunate, and we believe it also speaks to the quality of training and experience our lifeguards are having here,” Gallo said.
He reported that 13 of the 31 lifeguards returned from last summer.
The past several years, Gallo said he has seen a decreasing number of lifeguard applications. He cited several factors, including the pandemic, the process and increasing cost of becoming a lifeguard, the increased minimum wage that provides higher pay for non-lifeguard positions, and the demands on people’s time for activities other than lifeguarding.
“There used to be a great appeal to being a lifeguard,” Gallo said, “but with the minimum wage climbing for other jobs and the cost of obtaining a certification, it has made people think twice whether it is worth it to become a lifeguard.“
He also thinks that potential social media exposure that did not exist in years past may have also led to quashing enthusiasm for becoming a lifeguard.
Now, explained Gallo, if a patron is upset with a lifeguard, it could be filmed and put on social media or, for example, a parent blogs about some experience at the pool and maybe it is out of context, but it nonetheless becomes a discussion point.
“The lifeguards are kids, but these things are in perpetuity on people’s phones,” he said.
To counteract these factors and make lifeguard work appealing, Gallo said the town has increased the lifeguard hourly pay to $15, which exceeds the state’s minimum hourly rate of $14.20 for upstate New York.
He noted that as a municipality, the lifeguards are exempt from the state’s minimum wage rate, but market factors require at least meeting that rate to remain competitive at all. In order to keep attracting lifeguard applicants in the future, the town will consider bigger bumps in the hourly wage, sign on or retention bonuses and reimbursement of certification costs if the individual commits to working at the pool for a specified period of time or number of hours.
Gallo stated that the town has not increased the pool complex’s user fees in four years, and, with that in mind, has to closely balance pool access to residents with the costs associated with providing that service. He noted that luckily the cost attributable to the lifeguards is only a small part of the overall cost of operating the pool complex.
About five years ago, Bethlehem proactively began offering a lifeguard certification course during the winter as a way to increase the pipeline for hiring its own lifeguards. This year, the town reduced the cost of the course to $250, which pays for pool time, course materials, and the instructor. It takes about 29 hours to obtain a lifeguard certification.
The course attracted five students this year for a class that can accept up to 10, which Gallo considered to be a great success.
However, only one of those individuals applied for a lifeguard position this summer.
It takes over 6,700 lifeguard hours to fully staff the Elm Avenue Park pool complex from June-August. Lifeguards occupy the seven lifeguard chairs that surround the complex’s three pools – four at the Olympic size pool, two at the intermediate pool and one at the diving pool.
Three additional lifeguards must be on duty while the diving pool is open in case there is a need to assist with a rescue.
Due to a lifeguard’s need to be focused and on high alert at all times, no lifeguard sits for more than one hour at a time and with a rotation into a different chair after 30 minutes.
“Our goal is to keep them fresh,” Gallo said.
The town begins its lifeguard recruitment in February each year by advertising on the town’s social media and website and by word of mouth.
This year’s recruitment season brought about 40 certified applicants, of whom 27 have been hired. Except for one retiree, they are all high school and college students. Gallo said he would welcome recruiting more post graduates for lifeguard positions, and is open to identifying a strategy for doing so.
“Essentially,if you have the certification, we will hire you,” he said bluntly.
He added that all applicants over the age of 18 must pass a background check, and applicants under the age of 18 must provide references. Once hired, all lifeguards will receive pay for about 20 hours of additional training.The specific training involves learning town policies and procedures, pool rules and regulations, back boarding, and in-water scenario training before being permitted to sit in a chair.
Nicholas Atteck, 18 and a graduating senior at Bethlehem Central High School, said that as a lifeguard and not just a pool visitor, “I did not realize how much went into making sure everyone stays safe and follows the rules.”
Gallo credited the town’s ability to attract as many lifeguards as it has amid the continuing shortage to paying more than the minimum wage and other benefits of working at the complex that are not offered by other local municipal or privately operated pools.
“Our lifeguards are responsible for pool, water supervision and safety and no cleaning or chemical checks,” Gallo said.
Sofia Genovese, 16 and a Bethlehem student said, “I like making sure other people are safe in the water.” After growing up coming to the pool, she noted that it is interesting to be in the lifeguard chair. “Now I notice the lifeguards, I didn’t when I was younger.”
When lifeguards are not in a chair, they are given community facing tasks, like providing first aid for minor cuts or bee stings, walking the perimeter or checking on the splash islands in the play area. Sometimes, they get a few extra perks like an occasional Gatorade, ice pop or bottled water.
“We work on retention from the day they are hired,“ Gallo said. “We want them to understand how important their job is. They are providing a service for the community that on a day in and day out basis makes the community feel comfortable leaving their children at the pool and under their supervision, and that’s something to take pride in.”