A nationwide shortage of lifeguards is forcing local pools across the US to close for the summer, according to reports.
In major cities such as New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and elsewhere, public pools are reducing their hours of operation, or shutting down entirely amid an apparent shortage of lifeguards.
A third of pools in the US will be affected by staff shortages, according to the American Lifeguard Association, the BBC reported. Experts estimate that the number of affected pools could increase to half by September.
“The shortage is real,” lifeguard Motti Eliyahu said to BBC.
“It is a crisis,” the director of health and safety at the American Lifeguard Association, Bernard Fisher, added.
With shortages are already inhibiting summer swimming, cities are managing in different ways.
New Orleans city officials said last month that the municipal government would only open five of its 15 season pools, with plans to open up three additional pools if the city managed to recruit more lifeguards, the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported.
Even as temperatures in Chicago reached 100F (38C) last month, the city kept its pools shut down past the usual 24 June opening date, because it said it was not able to recruit sufficient lifeguards.
City officials reassigned lifeguards from local beaches to open up some of the pools on 5 July, NBC Chicago reported.
Some have also blamed the lifeguard shortage in Chicago on the mishandling of sexual assault and harassment complaints within the city’s lifeguard program, which led to an investigation and the resignation of several park district employees last year, according to Block Club City Chicago.
New York officials announced on Wednesday that they would be increasing the starting pay for lifeguards and developing a training program to staff the city’s pools, which have been largely empty amid the staffing shortages, reported NBC New York. New York has roughly half the number of lifeguards than prior to the pandemic.
Experts say that although concerns about a shortage of lifeguards have persisted for years, the Covid pandemic and issues in the labor market are exacerbating the existing problem.
YMCA water safety expert Lindsay Mondick said a lack of available US student visas has worsened the shortage, because many lifeguards in the country are foreign students. The slow release of more visas is having only limited effect on the staffing shortages.
“We have been concerned about this potential lifeguard shortage for a number of years now,” Mondick said to BBC. “But I would say that Covid and the current tight labor market has really exacerbated this issue.”
Fisher, of the lifeguard association, also said simply increasing wages may not solve staffing issues because not enough people are training to be lifeguards.
Fisher said he fears that if cities cannot find ways to recruit more trained lifeguards and open up local pools, people may seek out unmonitored and possibly more dangerous swimming options in order to taste relief from the summer heat.
“It’s such a crisis that if we don’t start resolving it this year, it’s going to be even worse next year, which I just can’t imagine,” Fisher said to BBC.