Manager Ashley Ford roamed the perimeter of one of Indianapolis’ five open pools, watching children as they jumped off a diving board or hurtled into the water from a curved slide. Four lifeguards, whistles in hand, watched from their high chairs placed around the water.
With a dozen pools in the city closed due to a shortage of lifeguards, families sometimes line up more than an hour before the one in Frederick Douglass Park opens, Ford said. Several days it reaches its capacity.
A nationwide shortage of lifeguards exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted communities like Indianapolis to cut pools and hours. In other places in the United States, bathing areas are unattended.
That leaves some Americans with fewer or more risky options, even as a significant portion of the nation experiences a second heat wave in as many weeks. Public health experts say the risk of drowning drops significantly when lifeguards are present.
“That’s my biggest thing is to keep everyone safe,” Ford said.
The American Lifeguard Association estimates that the shortage affects a third of American swimming pools. Bernard J. Fisher II, the association’s director of health and safety, expects that to grow to half of all pools by August, when many teenage lifeguards return to school.
“It’s a disaster,” Fisher said.
Summer shortages aren’t unusual, but U.S. pools are also dealing with the fallout from the start of the pandemic, when they closed and lifeguard certification stopped, Fisher said. The starting salary lags behind many other jobs, although some cities are increasing incentives.
Indy Parks and Recreation has 100 lifeguards on staff this year when it would normally have double that number, said Ford, who worked for the agency for 20 years. Even though lifeguards at nearby closed pools expand open facilities, Indianapolis pools still have to close for an hour of lunch and cleaning each day.
When a local pool isn’t open, youngsters can go swimming in places without lifeguards, Fisher said. This can lead to more drownings, which disproportionately affect people of color. In the United States, black people under the age of 29 are 1.5 times more likely to drown than white Americans of the same age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Approximately 330,000 people enroll in the American Red Cross Lifesaving Course each year. That figure has fallen as many pools have been closed due to the pandemic, but it’s now rising, Jenelle Eli, senior director of media relations for the American Red Cross, said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Indy Parks has its lifeguards complete a course in which they swim 100 yards, swim for a minute without using their hands, and retrieve a 10-pound object from the bottom of a pool. The starting salary is $15 per hour, up from $13 per hour earlier this year. Those who stay the full season will receive a $100 retention bonus, Boyd said.
“I tried to convince some of my friends to get summer jobs and have some money in their pockets,” said second-year lifeguard Donald Harris, 17. “They just said surveillance is not for them.”
In Indiana state parks, lifeguards are paid $11 per hour. All of the state’s 37 facilities remain open, but some are operating limited hours, said Indiana Division of State Parks director Terry Coleman. Many Indiana state parks additionally have shallow swimming areas without lifeguards, Coleman said.
“We are looking at potential incentives for perhaps the 2023 recreation season, but nothing concrete at this time,” he said.
In Maine, several state parks have started the season without lifeguards, and visitors are notified at the park entrance when no lifeguards are on duty, said Jim Britt, spokesman for the Department of Nature. Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry of Maine. The state pays lifeguards about $16 an hour.
“That’s a concern,” Britt said. “There’s no two ways about it. We want lifeguards to be there and on duty.
Chicago, which has one of the nation’s largest aquatic programs — 77 public pools and 22 beaches that serve a population of nearly 2.75 million — pushed back the pools’ opening day to July 5 from of June 24.
“Chicago families rely on our park programs during the summer, so we’re not giving up,” Chicago Park District Superintendent Rosa Escareño said in a news release.
Escareño attributed the shortage in part to “mass resignation” – referring to post-pandemic labor shortages.
Chicago Park District pays $15.88 an hour and now offers bonuses of $600, down from $500 in May, to new hires who stay through the summer. It also relaxed residency requirements, meaning applicants do not have to live in the city.
One cause of candidate hesitation unrelated to the pandemic may be a lifeguard sex abuse scandal that rocked the Chicago Park District last year.
Escareño said the organization has since strengthened its accountability and reporting systems.
“I think the most important thing right now is to make sure that we open safely and that we put safety as the highest priority, not only the safety of our residents, but also the safety of our employees,” she said.
Associated Press reporter David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report. Savage reported from Chicago. She and Rodgers are members of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative body. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.