Chronic Lifeguard Shortage Serves as Springboard to Address Racial Inequities

Published 7:13 am Monday, June 12, 2023

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Two summers ago, a teenager who had jumped off the diving board started struggling in the deep end, her arms flailing. It took only a few seconds for lifeguard Makenna John to notice the girl’s distress. She grabbed her rescue tube, jumped in, and helped the girl to safety.

This summer is Makenna’s third lifeguarding at the public pool in Roxana, Illinois, a village in the St. Louis area. Although dramatic rescues are relatively rare, she estimates that up to a quarter of the roughly 50 people she keeps a watchful eye on during a shift can’t swim. Then there are the daredevils and children whose parents think they’re better swimmers than they are.

“It’s stressful because you’re responsible for ensuring the safety of all the people at the pool,” said Makenna, 17.

Lifeguarding may look like a cushy job. What’s not to like about lounging in a chair by the pool all day? But the job carries a load of responsibility.

Drowning is the No. 1 cause of death for children ages 1 to 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of those deaths occur in swimming pools. For kids 5-14, drowning is the second-most common type of unintentional injury death, behind motor vehicle deaths.

As schools let out and warm summer days draw people to pools and beaches around the country, many cities and towns are scrambling to hire enough lifeguards to safely oversee swimmers. If they can’t meet their targets, they may cut back pool hours or opt not to open some pools at all. While a shuttered pool on a hot summer day is a letdown for many residents, it can be a particularly big blow for low-income families who don’t have a lot of affordable summer fun options.

Up to 90% of Des Moines kids qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, said Ben Page, director of Des Moines Parks and Recreation in Iowa. “People can’t afford to go to the movies for air conditioning,” he said.

When local officials make decisions about where to close pools or cut back hours, they do so knowing that swimming has a fraught history of racial inequities.

Racial disparities play a significant role in drowning deaths. Overall, the drowning death rate for Black people in the U.S. is 1.5 times that of white people. The difference is starkest for swimming pool deaths, in which Black children ages 10 to 14 drown at a rate 7.6 times that of their white peers, according to the CDC.

Research conducted in 2017 by the USA Swimming Foundation found that two-thirds of Black children have minimal swimming ability or can’t swim at all. Forty-five percent of Hispanic children are nonswimmers, as are 40% of white kids. (Hispanic people can be of any race or combination of races.) The same study found that 79% of kids in families with incomes less than $50,000 are unable to swim.

When Cullen Jones, the first Black American to hold a world record in swimming, was 5, he nearly drowned at a water park near his home in Irvington, New Jersey. At the time, he didn’t know how to swim, and lifeguards saved his life.

“Most people expect that if you have a near drowning, you were doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing, you were horseplaying or someone pushed you,” said Cullen, a four-time Olympic medalist.

Now 39, Jones travels the country as an ambassador for the USA Swimming Foundation, talking to kids about the importance of learning to swim.

It’s not hard to see the thread connecting lack of swimming ability and higher drowning rates among Blacks with the expansion of swimming pools in the United States. As cities embarked on a municipal pool building boom in the 1920s and ’30s, Black Americans were generally excluded from them, either explicitly because they were white-only pools, or by threats and violence, according to an exhibit at Philadelphia’s Fairmount Water Works titled “Pool: A Social History of Segregation.”

When desegregation was mandated after World War II, many towns closed or relocated their pools to secluded white neighborhoods rather than allow Black people to use them.

Funds also weren’t provided to support pools in majority-Black communities, said Kevin Dawson, an associate professor of history at the University of California-Merced, who has written on the topic. “They might not fill them all the time or not have lifeguards, so people couldn’t use them.”

As cities and towns today make decisions about which pools to open, many are doing so with a clear intention that they be accessible to poor or minority kids as well as those in less diverse or wealthier neighborhoods.

In Baltimore, where the public pools are free to all, city officials carefully selected which 12 of its 23 pools would open this year.

“We picked our pools so that it will be equitable and there would be locations on bus lines so that everyone will have access,” said Nikki Cobbs, chief of aquatics at the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks.

Recreational experts who’ve canvassed jurisdictions say they expect fewer closed pools this year than last.

“Things are a little bit better than they were,” said Kevin Roth, vice president for research, evaluation, and technology at the National Recreation and Park Association, an advocacy organization for people working in the parks and recreation field. “The open times may still be compressed, but there were communities that didn’t open half their pools last year, and we’re not hearing that this year.”

Still, lifeguard staffing shortages continue to put pressure on pool availability. In recent years, it’s become increasingly hard to fill seasonal lifeguard positions with teenagers, the backbone of the workforce.

That’s largely because employment patterns have changed.

Until 2000, about half of teenagers worked at least part of the summer, on average, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. But by 2010, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the employment rate for teens had dropped to about 30%. Many local parks and recreation staffers are well aware of this new reality.

“The opportunities for young people have increased, and many travel and do internships; they do sports and camp. We’re competing with a lot of things,” said April Chappell, aquatics director for the Cincinnati Recreation Commission.

“There’s been a bit of a cultural shift,” Roth said.

The tight labor market has also given teens better-paying employment options — such as fast-food, retail, or office jobs — that don’t require them to carve out time to get certified in swimming, CPR, and rescue operations by the Red Cross or another group.

Many cities and towns are now taking steps to compete, including boosting lifeguards’ hourly rates, promising bonuses, and offering to pay for lifeguard certification classes. Some are reaching out to retirees and nontraditional workers to fill their ranks.

Des Moines has hired 151 lifeguards to date, far more than the 125 minimum needed to staff its five pools, said Ian Knutsen, who supervises the city’s aquatics program.

Before recruitment got underway, they surveyed former lifeguards about what would make them want to sign up for a stint this year.

“Money was the biggest deciding factor,” Page said.

Des Moines lifeguards start at $15 an hour, compared with $13 last year. That makes the city jobs competitive with other local employers. Lifeguards get an additional $5 per hour for working on holidays. Those who stay through July can get a $200 bonus, which grows by $25 each year they come back, capping at $300.

Cincinnati raised lifeguard wages to $16 an hour, from $11.53 last year, and offered $500 bonuses to returning lifeguards. Despite that, lifeguard shortages persist and mean the city may be able to open only 13 of its 23 pools, said Chappell.

Kids often want to lifeguard at their neighborhood pool, Chappell said. But in some neighborhoods, there may not be enough kids who are swimmers to fill the spots. The city has programs to help increase those numbers.

Last winter, Cincinnati funded a lifeguard academy for people 14-24. The program pays for swimming lessons if they need them and pays for their lifeguard training, as well. About 150 applied, and over 60 became lifeguards, Chappell said.

It’s not only the number of lifeguards that determines pool availability. In Phoenix, lifeguard recruitment has been going great, said Adam Waltz, a spokesperson for the city’s parks and recreation division. Still, the city plans to open only 18 of its 29 pools for the summer, with some on staggered schedules. The sticking point: pool managers.

“In order to open 29 pools, you need to have 29 pool managers, and we couldn’t get that this year,” he said. “We can’t have a first-summer lifeguard calling the shots during a water emergency.”

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