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Public Swimming Programs Had Been Drowning For Months. Why Didn’t City Hall Save Them?

Other cities have found solutions to the "national lifeguard shortage."

1:35 PM EDT on June 15, 2022

McCarren Park Pool re-opening day, June 28, 2012. (NYC Mayor’s Office)

The Parks Department has finally confirmed what Hell Gate first reported was a fait accompli weeks ago: there will be no adult lap swim, senior swim, and free swim instruction at the city’s outdoor pools this summer, due to a lack of lifeguards.

This is the third year that New Yorkers will go without these programs. In 2020, pools were closed for obvious COVID-19 pandemic-related reasons, and in 2021, while the pools reopened with capacity restrictions, adult lap swim, senior swim, and swim instruction were canceled due to a lifeguard shortage.

Now, despite assurances from Mayor Eric Adams that the city is fully open and has its "groove back," the city’s majestic outdoor pools will return to their regular hours on June 28 without these popular free programs set aside for adults who swim for exercise, those who need space to swim safely, and those just learning to swim.

The Adams administration is blaming the “national lifeguard shortage.”

There are many factors behind the “national lifeguard shortage,” which is real, but there are also things that cities can do to attract more lifeguards, like pay them more.

As Gothamist’s Jake Offenhartz pointed out, Massachusetts recognized that after its deadliest summer for swimmers ever in 2021, the state needed to do a lot more to attract lifeguards. So it raised the starting pay to $21/hour and added a signing bonus between $500 to $1,000. Now, they are well on their way of adding 600 positions for the summer season. And in Austin, Texas, the city is offering bonuses of up to $1,250 to potential lifeguards.

Meanwhile, in New York City, lifeguard pay remains the same: $16/hour, amounting to a weekly salary of about $800. It's also not uncommon for our lifeguards to work six days a week.

While the city has consistently struggled to hire lifeguards each summer (for reasons of ineptitude and mayoral disinterest and union struggles) it was always able to fully staff city pools before the pandemic.

On NY1 this morning, Mayor Adams attributed the shortage to a lack of interest in becoming a lifeguard.

“We're going to see if we can speak to some of our schools where we have swimming programs to get young people engaged and I'm with you, we have to teach our young people how to swim,” Adams said, when pressed specifically about the cancellation of swim instruction.

The city struggled to fill training opportunities during the winter, when many lifeguards were still at school. It might have had an easier time if it raised the meager pay.

Right now, there are no open spots available for qualifying tests, the first step to becoming a city lifeguard, which can set you on the path to being a lifeguard.

Asked whether it did enough to recruit lifeguards this past winter, the Parks Department pointed to the "extensive qualifying exams" it held. But anyone trying to become a new lifeguard this summer is out of luck.

"The qualifying exams to enter the training program were held between the end of January until late April. At this time, we are only able to re-certify returning lifeguards," a spokesperson told Hell Gate. "We continue to encourage all former NYC Parks Lifeguards, who are in condition, to come out and get re-certified for the Summer 2022 season."

The Adams administration and the City Council just finished its $101 billion budget process, with $8.3 billion set aside for reserves. Despite Adams's campaign promises suggesting that he would allocate 1 percent of the City budget towards the Parks Department, that didn't happen this year.

Councilmember Shekar Krishnan, who represents Jackson Heights and part of Elmhurst, and who chairs the committee overseeing the Parks Department, told Hell Gate that he was “very disappointed by this, especially because I fought to ensure record funding to the NYC Parks in this budget to protect jobs.”

Krishnan vowed to fight for the restoration of the programs as soon as possible.

“We know well that access to pools and beaches as well as swim programs is not only vital for all communities, but especially for neighborhoods of color, which are disproportionately impacted,” he said. “This is an issue that the Parks Department must address right away.”

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