Updated May 30, 2022 - Economy

New lifeguard danger

Illustration of a red "Off Duty" sign.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Pool openings are delayed across the country this Memorial Day weekend due to a severe lifeguard shortage for the second summer in a row.

Why it matters: The guard shortage could prevent about a third of more than 300,000 public pools from opening, per the American Lifeguard Association.

  • The pools that do manage to open could see significantly reduced hours — and others may struggle to stay open through Labor Day, said Bernard J. Fisher II, director of health and safety at the lifeguard association.

Driving the news: Fisher warned that the shortage may mean a decline in swim lessons — as those instructors need to be lifeguard certified — leading to potentially deadly consequences.

  • "That means we're going to have increased drownings because one of the things that you want to do is learn how to swim as early as possible," he said.
  • Fisher, 65, has 50 years of lifeguard experience and said he's never seen anything like this.
  • "It's becoming a snowball effect that this is not only a crisis this year, but we need to relook at how we need to prevent this from continuing into many more years."
  • A combination of the cancellation of J-1 exchange work visas and the pandemic, which put lifeguard training on pause, is leading to the severe nationwide shortage.

Zoom in: Some pools in central Pennsylvania are remaining closed this weekend and scaling back hours due to the shortage, Penn Live reports.

  • "I’m sitting here looking at what I have and trying to figure out how we can get by with a skeleton crew and figure out how we can recruit during the summer," said Todd Miller, who works with a Pennsylvania recreation commission.

Philadelphia only had enough lifeguards to open 18 of the city's 65 available outdoor pools this summer as of April 14, Axios' Mike D'Onofrio reports.

Chicago pools and swimming sites face a similar plight.

  • While the city employs 163 year-round lifeguards, as of May 13 it had not yet hired any seasonal lifeguards for 2022, Axios' Monica Eng reports.
  • Plus, the district usually needs 587 lifeguards to fully staff beaches and pools, but just 254 people had applied for those jobs earlier this month, per Eng.

Flashback: This is the second year in a row that pools and other water sites are facing staffing woes.

What to watch: Fisher said that tapping into the retiree population — which he calls the "silver group" — and increasing pay and other incentives for potential guards could help alleviate the shortage.

  • "There's a lot of retirees that may or may not need the extra money, having it that they come down and have the community is great," he said.
  • "There's no better place than your neighbors to get together and enjoy some fun with your kids in a guarded swimming pool or beach."
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