Since she was a teenager, Nellie Cazares says, lifeguarding has been part of her summer routine: the early mornings, the rescue boards, umbrellas and megaphones, the constant emphasis on training.
She started lifeguarding for the East Bay Regional Parks when she was 15, and is now a lifeguard training coach. “I had grown up in these parks my whole life,” she says. “So that was the reason why I decided to go back to these places and give back to the community.”
Around the Bay Area and across the country, people who run public swimming facilities desperately want to find more Nellie Cazares. But it’s an uphill battle. More than one-third of the public pools in the U.S. are affected by a national lifeguard shortage, according to the American Lifeguard Association. The shortage has taken a toll on the swimming facilities in the Bay Area as well, leaving some pools understaffed and others having just enough to cover day-to-day operation, limiting opening hours, and decreasing the number of aquatics programs offered.
Officials at the East Bay Regional Park District, which boasts 13 swimming pools, beaches and lagoons, are not experiencing the shortage first-hand because six out of the 13 swimming facilities are closed currently due to renovations and low water levels. But the hiring challenges persist.
“Optimum pre-pandemic, most facilities were opening seven days a week with pretty good opening hours, but you’re not seeing that anymore right now,” said Pete DeQuincy, aquatics manager at East Bay Regional Park District. “They’re not able to provide the services as often or as long.”
During the pandemic, the swim teams in local high schools were not in training. As a result, lifeguard recruiters lost a key source of candidates, DeQuincy noted.
San Jose, too, has managed to hire enough lifeguards to open its public swim centers, including Camden Pool, on time, but with no additional staffing to cover circumstances such as lifeguards’ sick leave or vacations.
“Back 10 years ago, we were hiring 90 people, no problem. But there are not a high amount of people looking for lifeguard jobs this summer,” said Jeremy Shoffner, the Recreation Superintendent of the city of San Jose.
The situation in Sonoma County has been more pressing.
“We are running on fumes,” said Lesley Pfeiffer, the Lifeguard and Recreation Coordinator at Sonoma County Regional Parks. The Park District was planning to hire 10 new lifeguards this year, but by the time the lifeguards training academy started in May, it only had four. Many lifeguards in Sonoma County are working overtime, Pfeiffer said, sometimes nine days in a row.
In response to that, the Sonoma County Regional Parks has limited the number of aquatics programs that require lifeguards, such as junior lifeguard camps. These junior programs are supposed to be “a stepping stone” to becoming a lifeguard in the future, but the limited availability of these programs might pose challenges to future lifeguard hiring too.
Lifeguarding can be a mentally demanding job. The split-second decisions, the constant thoughts about what could have been done better, and the huge responsibilities are a handful for young high school or college students. But a job like this doesn’t pay terribly well, and the low employment rate across the county has provided young people with higher-paying job opportunities.
“If they want to find a job, they can work at In-N-Out for $25 per hour. Why would they want to take a job that pays only $17?” asked James Teixeira, the director of Parks and Recreation in the city of Santa Clara.
For local officials, the situation requires a delicate balance between increasing the incentive for lifeguards while keeping pool costs down.
Currently, many swim facilities offer free lifeguard certification and pay people for the hours they spend in training. Otherwise, applicants have to pay $200 to $300 just in hopes of getting the job.
“If you’re from a household that does not have that type of wiggle room, that’s a big deal,” DeQuincy said.
If more public swimming pools, beaches and lagoons are closed or left unguarded, people who can’t afford to pay the typical $15 to go swimming will have no access to swimming facilities this summer, a prospect that worries many local aquatics directors. It will make learning about water safety much less accessible for kids who are already at a disadvantage.
“We definitely don’t want to close,” Pfeiffer said. “But we are hurting.”
Contributed by local news sources