When the heat hits California, public swimming pools become vital refuges for tens of thousands of families, many of them of modest means. But due to bureaucratic red tape and the consequences of pandemic closures, many pools across the state face a labor pool problem — not enough lifeguards.
Oceanside is one of them. The Southern California coastal city recently earmarked $600,000 to upgrade one of its oldest and most popular public pools, the Brooks Street Swim Center, which serves a low-income neighborhood. The pool’s future sparked an intense row last year when some city council members wanted to shift its funding to a new aquatic center in a more affluent part of town, an idea that was scrapped after members members of the community called it racist and “disrespectful”.
But due to a lack of lifeguards, Brooks Street Pool is one of many in California that have been forced to cut hours.
“This [funding] was a huge thing for the community,” said Rep. Tasha Horvath (D-Carlsbad), author of a bill that aims to address the state’s shortage of lifeguards. “We got money in last year’s budget to keep the pool open, and why can’t the pool open? Because there are no lifeguards.
Lifeguards are in short supply, industry experts say, in part due to the temporary closure of beaches and public pools during COVID-19. These closures have fueled the so-called “Great Resignation”, prompting many age students to return to school or seek work in other industries.
But California is also hampered by certification requirements that don’t easily allow “Bay Watch” lifeguards to become “Pool Watch” lifeguards.
In California, pool lifeguards must be certified through a training program run by the American Red Cross or the United States YMCA, while ocean lifeguards can officially climb their watchtowers after completing the United States Lifesaving Assn. coaching.
Horvath’s bill, AB 1672, would allow ocean lifeguards, who undergo very rigorous training and are generally paid more than their counterparts, to work in public swimming pools during off-seasons – a time when recreational agencies often miss out. of lifeguards.
Three miles from Oceanside, the town of Carlsbad has also struggled to keep its pools open. Carlsbad co-sponsored Horvath’s bill in an effort to salvage its year-round pool season.
“It wasn’t until we were able to reopen after COVID that we saw the effects of the pandemic,” Ashlee Benson, Carlsbad’s water sports manager, told The Times.
Officials and lawmakers continue to speculate on the full range of reasons why more people don’t want to become lifeguards or return to the profession.
“I suspect people are making other life choices,” Horvath said. “They graduate or move on to other industries. I mean, you see that on every level.
The last time the country experienced a shortage of lifeguards was 20 years ago, when the job market couldn’t keep up with the influx of new condominium complexes with swimming pools, according to Bernard J. Fisher II, director health and safety for the American Lifeguard. Assn.
Now the problem is back. Fisher’s group estimates that about a third of the 309,000 public pools across the country will not be able to open this summer due to staffing shortages.
Ravelle Morales, a lifeguard at the Monroe Street pool, recalls that when she moved to Carlsbad earlier this year, the city was desperate for people to protect the pools and close them at the end of the day.
“When I arrived I stepped up and closed five or six days a week,” the 28-year-old said. Shortly after, the city offered lifeguards a 9% raise to attract more applicants. It was “really helpful,” Morales said, but many of his COVID-aware colleagues decided to stop monitoring altogether.
Due to the shortage, Morales is also working shifts at two YMCA locations. She plans to continue working as a lifeguard and one day move into a supervisor position.
“Our struggle has been college-aged students,” Benson said of their hiring issues. “We struggled to fill the morning and midday portion as they would normally be able to work those hours.”
Labor pool issues are more than just an inconvenience, said Jodi Diamond, CEO of a boys and girls club less than a mile from the Brooks Street facility. “Local community pools are very necessary,” she said, noting that they help children learn to swim and adopt lifelong water safety practices.
If pools are closed, families will go swimming elsewhere – in rivers or lakes where there are no lifeguards, some safety experts say.
“People will still be swimming and drownings will increase like last year,” said Fisher of the American Lifeguard Assn.
Each year, there are about 3,960 fatal drownings in the United States, or about 11 drownings per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fatal and non-fatal drownings in swimming pools remain particularly high so far this year, according to a June report from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.
From 2019 to 2021, an estimated 80% of children who were treated for non-fatal pool or spa-related drownings were under the age of 5, although only 27% of these occurred in public places compared to houses.
Fisher is concerned that some tourism-dependent states, such as Florida and New Jersey, no longer require lifeguards at certain pools.
That could solve the shortage of lifeguards in those states, Fisher said, but he fears it could lead to more deaths. Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death in young children ages 1 to 4, according to the CDC.
“When you dig deeper, it’s completely an inequality issue,” Horvath said of the decisions cities face when reducing pool hours.
Even with many coastal towns scrambling for lifeguards, Huntington Beach, a major tourist town with nearly seven miles of shoreline, has maintained a steady roster, according to city spokeswoman Jennifer Carey.
Recreation agencies were helped somewhat by a temporary permit that allowed ocean rangers to monitor swimming pools, but that permit expired on July 23.
The problem will come in September when classes resume and agencies “are understaffed again,” said Connor Malone, a representative for Horvath.
Supporters are hoping Governor Gavin Newsom will sign the legislation, but that won’t happen until after the legislature returns from recess in August. If so, Benson said, Carlsbad hopes to maintain its “great relationship with ocean rescuers.”