A Hotter Summer and Fewer Lifeguards, A Growing Issue For New York City

by Mark Wild 10

June 08th, 2023 News

With summer fast approaching in the northern climes of the United States, many people look forward to a relaxing day cooling off at their local pool or beach. Yet for the most populous city in the country, they may not be able to. It’s not because of COVID shutting down pools again or contaminated water but rather a staffing issue. New York City is facing a very daunting shortage of lifeguards.

According to a New York Times article, the city currently has around one-third of the number of lifeguards they need to fully operate their pools and beaches. The Parks Department states that they currently have only 500 lifeguards to staff their 53 outdoor pools and 14 miles of beaches.

This shortage is not confined to New York City alone, however. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, which runs its state parks, beaches, and pools, was offering sign-on bonuses as high as $500 in addition to the starting hourly rate of $22.00 (as listed on their website).

In 2021, New Jersey State Parks had to prohibit swimming at four state park lakes due to a lifeguard shortage, so they have allowed 15-year-olds to apply as ‘junior’ lifeguards. A SwimSwam article published in January of this year noted that the city of Philadelphia, in anticipation of a lifeguard shortage, was offering free swim lessons to applicants leading up to the summer season. The city did note that they would not hire applicants who had not passed the mandated screening swim test or obtained a lifeguarding certification.

The lifeguard shortage isn’t even confined to the United States, just last week the government of Ontario moved the age requirement to 15 years old from the previous 16. New Orleans too has their age limit set at 15 in hopes of attracting more guards.

What makes this lifeguard shortage even more pressing is the need to be able to cool off. Predicting the weather is hard, just ask your local meteorologist the next time you get 19 inches of snow while you were predicted to be in the 8–12-inch band. But on May 18, 2023, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicting that most states are expected to have a hotter-than-average summer, that need is compounded, especially in urban heat islands.

Urban heat Islands are locations in which temperatures are greater than those surrounding them due to the myriad of concrete and metal and lack of vegetation. Cities like New Orleans, Newark and New York City, top the list of urban heat islands, with all three cities being at least 7.5℉ warmer than surrounding areas. If you want to know more about heat islands and what causes them, this report by Climate Central is very helpful.

What makes New York City stand out even more than being an urban heat island, and short on lifeguards, is the process it takes to become one of the city’s guards. To begin with, you must complete a qualifying test to even be allowed to take their lifeguard training program. The city does not allow outside lifeguard accreditation, like from a YMCA or Red Cross program.

Their requirements, taken from the city’s website are as follows:

  • Be at least 16 years of age by the start of employment (the end of June)
  • Have at least 20/30 vision in one eye and 20/40 in the other, without corrective lenses (glasses and contact lenses cannot be worn during the eye exam)
  • Be able to swim 50 yards in 35 seconds or less with proper form
  • Bring a bathing suit, a towel, and a lock (for your locker), and wear a face covering in the building. Goggles are optional

If you’ve made it through those barriers, you then are enrolled in a 16-week 40-hour program of swimming and instruction on how to be a lifeguard, the program is free however. In 2022, of the 900 applicants who tried the initial swim test, less than 250 passed. This year due to complaints and most likely an expected shortage, they increased the time limit to 45 seconds and also allowed the applicants to know their times, as opposed to the previous policy of it being either a pass or fail.

But changing the test requirements and increasing the hourly rate from $16.10 to $21.26 for newer guards, might not be enough to attract the attention of prospective guards. The city also has to contend with unions. Local 461 and Local 508 represent lifeguards and supervisors respectively and are a part of District Council 37, one of New York’s largest municipal unions. A council that was described as a “Tammany Hall by the Sea” in a 2020 New York Magazine article.

Whether it is navigating the hard qualifications, putting your life on the line, working for low pay, a sometimes-ungrateful clientele, or dealing with the workings of a major labor union lifeguarding in New York City should not be taken lightly. But as someone that spent eight summers on a waterfront, it can certainly be worth it.

It should be noted that the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation website currently has a banner stating that there are currently no lifeguard qualifying tests open at this time, so perhaps they have enough applicants in the 16-week course to be fully staffed by the time the pools open on June 29th.

If you or someone you know is looking into lifeguarding jobs please contact your local pool, parks department or the Red Cross to see if and where there are job openings or training courses.

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1 year ago

Train the illegal immigrants to lifeguard the pools.

1 year ago

You can put time toward your pension if you lifeguard with the state versus a private club/facility. I think this is a little known fact and should be an incentive for teachers to spend their summers or other state employees to spend their weekends. It’s something like 3 summers is equivalent to 1 year.

1 year ago

It’s not complicated, NYC. Pay rookie lifeguards what rookie cops, firefighters, EMS, and other public safety workers in NYC get paid (including medical premiums and pension payments), and watch the world beat a path to your door.

1 year ago

the vision requirement would fail me and seems excessive. I guard with prescription glasses or my contacts.

1 year ago

When getting a lifeguard certificate costs hundreds of dollars, I am not surprised people don’t want to be lifeguards, regardless of the pay after. I’ve paid $250 for my RECERTS (for coaching purposes at this point). Not original certification. And I know those can cost more. It’s a little ridiculous. Working as a lifeguard sucks too- people thinking they have better ability than they actually do, kids not listening, typically *lovely* management, lots of reasons not to work as a lifeguard nowadays.

swim mom
Reply to  jablo
1 year ago

Our city (experiencing a huge shortage with some beaches and pools closed for summer) now offers the training for free but it is still excessive to what is required to work at a private pool (which 2 of my 3 kids work this summer). Even with less pay (the city hourly rate is higher), they make much more teaching private lessons and have other perks the public pools don’t have – thus no shortage and very flexible work hours allowing my busy competitive swimmer to still work some hours around trainings/meets. Still feel more can be done to help with the shortage but not opening pools/beaches when Covid regulations allowed really messed with their supply/flow of workers. Private pools and… Read more »

Rocky Mountain High Dive
1 year ago

:35 for a 50 free is a pretty tough hurdle for an average swimmer. Rarely as a lifeguard are you swimming with “proper form” as well.

Mediocre Swammer
Reply to  Rocky Mountain High Dive
1 year ago

Especially if you’re not diving in. (I don’t know if you start in the water or not.)

The Original Tim
1 year ago

16 week 40 hour training program? As in 2.5 hours a week for 16 weeks, or as in 40 hours a week for 16 weeks for a total of 640 hours?

35 seconds for a 50 is very fast for the non-competitive swimming public. I’d submit that 45 seconds is still pretty fast for the non-competitive swimming public.

There’s a line between setting reasonable standards and creating arbitrary, capricious standards that do nothing but serve as barriers for entry and shoot yourself in the foot, and NYC sure seems to be on the barrier to entry side of things.

As a related aside, given NYC’s push for DEI, I’d be interested to see what percentage of minorities qualify to be… Read more »

Reply to  The Original Tim
1 year ago

Read the New York Magazine article cited above if you have time. NYC’s rife with corruption. Padding the pockets of brainless goons.