May 18, 2023 - Business

Lifeguard shortages keep some Denver-area pools closed again

Illustration of a sign saying "Off Duty" but the O is a life preserver.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

For the third consecutive summer, cities across the Denver metro area and the U.S. are facing lifeguard shortages that may cut pool hours and keep swimming spots closed.

Why it matters: Public pools provide a cheap way to beat the heat, plus a safe space for young people when youth gun violence tends to spike in the summer.

Driving the news: This week, Gov. Jared Polis announced a new lifeguard training program that will allocate more than $250,000 in grants to local governments to boost staffing at public pools. Each city is eligible for up to $20,000.

  • Meanwhile, cities are scrambling to hire and train new people with the start of pool season just weeks away.

Zoom in: Denver, which is short about 60 lifeguards, has raised hourly wages to $17.29 — up from $15.87 last year — and is offering free training, parks and rec spokesperson Cynthia Karvaski tells us.

  • The city plans to open all outdoor and indoor pools on June 9, but hours could be curtailed because positions "continue to be difficult to fill," she says.

What they're saying: "There is a lot of competition in this area between other municipalities and the private sector, with the biggest barrier being access to training," Karvaski notes.

  • "By providing training free-of-cost and ample opportunity to receive certification, we're hopeful that we can continue last year's momentum into this summer."

Zoom out: In Aurora, 75 more lifeguards are needed to open every pool each weekday, so the city bumped starting wages to $17.50 an hour, spokesperson Erin Pulliam tells Axios Denver. The city's schedule isn't finalized yet, but outdoor pools are likely to open on alternating days.

  • Boulder is also understaffed by about 25 guards and will curtail operations at several of its pools until more are hired, spokesperson Jonathan Thornton says.
  • To help bridge the gap, Boulder increased wages for new lifeguards to $16.50 an hour and is offering a $100 referral bonus and five free guest passes to summer staff.

The big picture: The shortage that impacted about a third of more than 300,000 public pools nationwide last year is predicted to be "just as bad" or "even worse" this summer, American Lifeguard Association director Bernard Fisher tells Axios Denver.

What's happening: It stems from several factors, many of them pandemic-related, Fisher explains.

  • For starters, training and certification programs were disrupted during the height of COVID, making it harder to hire and retain staff — particularly international students with J-1 exchange work visas, who were already being relied on heavily before COVID hit.
  • Many licensed lifeguards also left the field during that time for new opportunities. "In order to attract the candidates into the profession again, we have to start competing with Starbucks and Amazon, where they can walk off the street and start making good pay," Fisher says.

What to watch: Without enough lifeguard-certified swim instructors to offer as many classes, many kids across the country aren't learning how to swim — and "drownings will increase because of that," Fisher warns.

  • That also means a new generation of young people "who are novice or non-swimmers — and can't become lifeguards," he says. "It's a snowball effect going in the wrong direction."

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