Covid-19 Pandemic Heightened by National Lifeguard Crisis

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By Danny Whirlow, Swimming World College Intern. 

Last Summer, pools all around the United States voiced concerns over a lack of lifeguards to run safe and efficient operations. Stretched thin, some pools ended up cutting operating hours, depriving patrons of leisurely time and employees opportunities to earn pay. Now, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to scour the globe, pools and beaches that choose to reopen not only face a myriad of public health and safety concerns, but new challenges regarding the hiring and training of lifeguards to address those problems.

Speaking to Insider magazine, Tom Gill, a spokesperson for the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), said: “The impact of Covid-19 on lifeguarding starts from recruiting all the way through operational. I would say that everything has been impacted.”

A Crisis Within A Crisis

Prior to the pandemic, evidence for the national lifeguard crisis was and still is largely anecdotal. However, a common theme emerges from each story: young people aren’t applying for the job anymore. Employment among those aged 16 to 19 years old was down to 36.1% in July 2019. This number is down from 37.7% in July 2009, and 51.0% in July 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Photo Courtesy: Pexels

The decline is largely attributed to a cultural shift in the goals of this demographic. No longer do teens seek a hold-over job for the summers in between classes. Instead, high school students focus on college preparation, while college students focus on internships and job preparation. Additionally, sports have become an unceasing endeavor, with teams holding summer conditioning programs in between seasons. All of these factors diminish the primary demographic for lifeguards.

The side effects of lockdown orders that vary state to state have compounded with this shrinking demographic to further strain the hiring process. While pools and hiring agencies depend on their local populations to fill their staffs, many still tap into workers that come from outside the area, like the aforementioned college students. And in the past, foreign workers could obtain short-term work visas to serve as lifeguards. Travel restrictions have made this method nearly impossible.

And if these issues weren’t enough, finding qualified applicants has now become a challenge. In Michigan City, Indiana, though lifeguard positions were advertised back in February, only one application was accepted. According to officials, this applicant was a returning lifeguard from the previous summer. No new applicants met the required qualifications for the positions, or applied in the first place.

Who Guards the Lifeguards?

The scarcity of applicants has created stress for the lifeguards who are still operating everywhere. Captain Tony Pryor of Texas’s Galveston Island Beach Patrol bemoaned the situation, stating “It’s going to be a long Summer.” His crew will do “the best (they) can do,” even if that means extending shift hours and only focusing on busy beaches if short-staffed.

Photo Courtesy: VBLA

The nature of the Covid-19 pandemic also challenges lifeguards to rethink their tactics. Veteran lifeguard Patrick Brafford said that his guards on Clearwater Beach, Florida will respect social distancing to a point. He told NBC News, “If (victims) can manage, we will hand them a flotation device for them to hold onto and then we can swim them into shore while keeping a safe distance.” However, should “dire conditions” present themselves, the victim’s life becomes the priority.

Professor of Public Health Vincenzo Spica echoes Brafford’s sentiment. To Swimming World, he said “the Covid risk becomes a secondary issue because there is a priority issue, which is to save the life of the person in trouble.” He further stressed that prevention was just as important as preparation. Per a USLA statement, lifeguards have now begun to equip themselves with gloves, masks, and eye protection. Hand sanitizer bottles have also found their way into guards’ kits.

A Civic Duty

Despite such immense and complex challenges, many lifeguards still feel a strong obligation to protect their communities.

Speaking to Time Magazine, Dillane Wehbe, a 20-year-old Fordham student and lifeguard at Sachuest Beach in Newport, Rhode Island, stated: “Someone has to watch the water. Whether or not it’s open, people are going to go to the beach and swim.”

Wehbe’s conviction was shared by a fellow Fordham student who lifeguards at Jones Beach in Wantagh, New York. 20-year-old Pat Wilson told Time, “The beach is part of everybody’s summer and lifeguards are a vital part of that. So it’s a risk we’re willing to assume even if there’s a bit of additional risk this summer.”

It is important to note how pools or beaches in your area are combating the Covid-19 pandemic and the lifeguard shortage?

-All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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13 comments

  1. Kate Burns

    The rise in the price of the Lifeguard Course has been the main contributing factor of the Lifeguard shortage. In New York the Lifeguard Course can cost anywhere fro $250-$500. The hourly wage of a Lifeguard has not gone up in the last 20 years. NY Lifeguards are making between $9-$15 per hour. It takes about a month for a Lifeguard to earn back what it costs them for the Course. A young person can start at a fast food restaurant making $12-$15 per hour.

    • avatar
      Craig Lord - Swimming World Editor-in-Chief

      Good point, Kate. A role much under-valued.

    • Doug McMahon

      Kate Burns I had no problem paying for my child’s certification course in HS which was around $200-250. It meant attaining a valuable skill, the ability to find a good summer job, and to learn the value of responsibility in a very important role. Even if they paid for it themselves it is not going to take 1 month to earn it all back. Do the math. Depending where they work, it also gives them a chance to teach lessons. Furthermore, once they get to college, it also gives them an opportunity to work on campus during the school year for what is usually one of the best paying jobs on campus.

    • Rae Rae

      Doug McMahon except you don’t just take this course once. You have to retake it every two years PLUS other training your pool or beach may require. I’ve worked as a lifeguard since I was 16 years old (17 years now) and the above comment is correct. The Red Cross is not helping the lifeguard shortage with their insane amount of classes they are starting to require for a lot of money coupled with no lifeguards making living wages. We are there to SAVE. YOUR. LIFE. in an emergency. $9-$15 is pathetic.

    • Doug McMahon

      Rae Rae every two years. Yup I know. And maybe if you chose to do it year-round it would be worth your while. It’s what you make of it.

    • Rae Rae

      Doug McMahon it’s not as easy as that. You just said it’s a summer job for some…. how can a college kid or HS kid lifeguard year round and make any kind of good money? And like I said it’s not just that certification that you need always. Coupled with the prices go up every year but wages do not.

    • Doug McMahon

      Rae Rae it’s also like most other jobs in life. You need to network and know people. Those individuals are the ones the tend to get the jobs first. It’s good to see that you are learning that now at a young age. It’s what you make of it.

    • Rae Rae

      Doug McMahon keep living in la-la land. But until what I mentioned changes lifeguards will keep disappearing. Pandemic or not.

      • avatar
        George Moffitt

        It’s been happening here for years and there aren’t very many of us left. Jobs that used to be competitive now can’t fill all positions.

    • Rae Rae

      Doug McMahon you seem like a nice guy

    • avatar
      George Moffitt

      We’ve definitely seen this in Seattle. Lifeguards are making less than most retail jobs for a job with high entry requirements. Additionally, the job is extremely physically and emotionally demanding. The work is extremely important and has relied too long on dedicated but underpaid staff.

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