NY4P in Crain's New York Business: City lifeguard ranks shrink to one-third of pre-Covid levels

City lifeguard ranks shrink to one-third of pre-Covid levels

By Brian Pascus

June 20, 2022

New York City’s lifeguard shortage is making waves just as summer begins. Observers blame low pay, stringent state control over how lifeguards are deployed, and challenging swimming tests few candidates can pass as reasons the city’s lifeguard ranks have shrunk to about one-third of their pre-Covid total.

The city has more than 14 miles of beaches and 53 public pools across the five boroughs, but only 516 certified lifeguards to monitor them, according to data from the city’s Parks Department. This number is far below the 1,424 certified lifeguards on staff in 2019, before the pandemic.

The shortage is already having immediate effects. The city announced on June 14 that it was again canceling lap swim, senior swim, Learn How to Swim, water aerobics and day camp programming at all outdoor pools. It canceled the programs last year too.

“It is really, really critical,” said Adam Ganser, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “The importance of pools and beaches in New York City, particularly on the hot summer days, is the infrastructure for what the city calls ‘its cooling system.’ So many people in the city don’t have access to air conditioning.”

The pressure is on the Adams administration and the City Council to fix the issue. The City Council and Mayor Eric Adams approved a $624.2 million Parks Department budget earlier this month, an increase of $98 million from the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2021.

“It is shocking that the Parks Department is unable to address the situation,” said Councilman Shekar Krishnan of Queens, chair of the Committee on Parks and Recreation. “This is an urgent crisis, and it needs to be addressed. The budget provides more than enough resources to do so.”

Adrian Benepe, Parks Department commissioner from 2002 to 2012, said the issue has more to do with state control than the city budget. Benepe noted it’s not a unique-to-New York problem; the American Lifeguard Association said earlier this month that there’s a shortage across the U.S.

Benepe said the city's staffing problems are compounded by the state Health Department's codes, which govern all the city's pools and beaches and define strict numbers of lifeguards required to monitor them. The rules took effect in July 2011.

“In years past you could open a pool with six or seven lifeguards, and now the state code requires 20,” he said.

State law requires one lifeguard for every 25 bathers and that each lifeguard cover no more than 50 yards of shoreline at beaches. The ratio of counselors to campers participating in water activities is 1-to-10. Benepe estimated some beaches can have nearly a million visitors on a busy weekend.

“It’s causing an overdeployment of lifeguards in one area and it’s closing beaches with no lifeguards in others,” said Janet Fash, a city lifeguard from 1979 to 2021 who has become an outspoken critic of the city’s lifeguard management. “They’re clustered and it’s not really efficient.

Covid hangover

Another reason for the lifeguard shortage is related to the low pay and the effects of the pandemic on employment.

The number of certified lifeguards dropped from more than 1,400 in 2019 to 740 during the pandemic year of 2020. Headcount increased to 1,043 during 2021, once vaccines became available, but fell to less than 550 this year. The city was forced to close its beaches and public pools for one month in 2020 and partially reopen them that summer, while 2021 saw swimmers confined to strict masking and social distancing policies.

“This was a catastrophe when these facilities were closed,” Ganser said. “The closures from two years ago forced people to find different opportunities that summer and it might have had a residual impact of what’s going on [today].”

Benepe emphasized that outside of a handful of positions at indoor pools or recreation centers, almost all of the city’s lifeguard positions are seasonal roles and not full-time jobs.

“The vast majority are part-time workers, high schoolers or college students, who go back to school at the end of the summer,” he said.

Fash conceded that the uncertainty of the pandemic affected employment numbers across the ranks.

“When we weren’t sure if we were going to work, we were not given clear communication from the Parks Department or the union,” she said. “That first year some lifeguards got jobs elsewhere.”

Fash noted one of her colleagues went on to become a lifeguard at a Long Island country club.

Poor pay

A lack of cash is another reason for the staffing shortage. Fash said that lifeguard payments vary because of experience and the number of hours worked. Beginner lifeguards, usually those in high school, make around $16 per hour, while more experienced lifeguards make $1,600 every two weeks, she said, or roughly $20 per hour.

Managers who don’t patrol the beaches make significantly more than lifeguards.

Peter Stein is listed as “chief lifeguard” under the city’s payroll database , but he is also the President of NYC Lifeguard Supervisors union, Local 508 of District 37.

Stein had a 2021 compensation of $179,667 at the Department of Parks and Recreation, according to city data.

Two other Parks Department employees listed as “chief lifeguards”—Javier Rodriguez and Martin Kravitz—each made more than $170,000 in 2021.

Fash said none of the three enter the water or patrol the beach. “They are really managers,” who oversee the operations of the city’s lifeguards, including placement at beaches and pools, she said.

Neither Stein nor Rodriguez responded to phone and text messages requesting an interview. The New York City Lifeguard School, which employs Kravitz, did not respond to a request for comment.

“The struggle is finding people to do this job,” Ganser said. “There’s a healthy amount of training for people who can be qualified, and the city is finding there just aren’t enough people to do the work.”

Union issue

The nonprofit news outlet The City reported that 683 of the 920 applicants for lifeguarding this year failed rigorous swimming tests.

Lifeguards must be able to swim 440 yards in 7 minutes and 40 seconds to qualify for a pool assignment or in 6 minutes and 40 seconds to qualify for a beach assignment. All lifeguards must pass a 40-hour training course, a CPR course, and a written test; beach lifeguards must also pass a 330-yard ocean swimming program.

Fash said that the lifeguard swim tests are run by the union, NYC Lifeguard Supervisors Local 508 of District 37, and not the Parks Department.

“The Parks Department doesn’t have any oversight,” Fash said. “Where we take our swim tests is run by the union and they’re failing a record number of lifeguards.”

The Parks Department said it did not have data of the previous number of applicants and those who failed qualifying tests in 2020 or 2021.

The Department did note, however, that Covid-19 contributed to a shortage of lifeguard applicants because fewer high school swim teams have competed in the past two years and that swimmers missed out on training time once pools were closed.

Some city employees looking to moonlight as lifeguards have also been rejected.

The Department of Citywide Administrative Services has denied multiple waivers from first responders, such as firefighters and EMTs from applying to work shifts as lifeguards, citing a 1987 statute that restricts dual employment when both employers are mayoral agencies, according to The City.

“That rule needs to be changed immediately to free up more people,” the City Council's Krishnan said. “This is coming up when they have months to prepare for this.”


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