Roped-off lanes and canceled swim programs have become the new normal at most of New York’s public outdoor pools this summer as a result of an ongoing lifeguard shortage.
All 51 of the city’s outdoor pools had some kind of capacity restriction when they opened for the season on June 29, parks spokesperson Dan Kastanis said. Two-thirds of them still have closed-off sections.
The department, which is short some 600 lifeguard positions, made the adjustments to avoid a repeat of last summer, when staff shortages shuttered some pools altogether.
In a statement, Parks Commissioner Sue Donohue said “it’s been a challenge recruiting enough people who can pass the NYC lifeguard requirements.”
City officials and safety experts have blamed New York’s lifeguard shortage on a lack of applicants, strict training standards and the powerful lifeguard unions, which have resisted reforms.
The lifeguard shortage has also affected pools and beaches in cities across the country, which are facing similar struggles in the aftermath of the pandemic.
In response to the staffing crisis, some public and private employers have raised salaries, paid hiring bonuses, boosted recruitment and, in some cases, relaxed their hiring requirements.
New York raised the hourly pay for new and second-year lifeguards from $16.10 to $21.26, and offered a $1,000 bonus for working the whole season. Reforms to the lifeguard test include a new 45-second cutoff for swimming 50 yards, up from the previous requirement of 35 seconds.
Pool hours were extended as a heat wave hit the city on July 28. Julie Swoope, a swimmer at Kosciuszko Pool in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, struggled to find relief.
The Olympic-sized pool “was half-closed and quite crowded,” said Swoope, of Crown Heights. “They opened the shallow end and then just rope off with caution tape the back half of the pool.”
She recalled people trying to swim laps despite the lanes being off-limits in the rear half of the pool.
“All the people swimming laps kept veering off, like in a diagonal zigzag across the pool,” Swoope said.
Some of the city’s most popular pools have limited capacity, including McCarren Park Pool in Greenpoint and Highbridge Pool in Washington Heights.
The reduced staffing has meant some programs, including lap swim times, have been canceled at outdoor pools.
“We are hopeful when looking towards the future, but it’s clear that we must continue to plan long-term for the lifeguard shortage as we build back our corps to pre-pandemic levels,” First Deputy Commissioner Iris Rodriguez-Rosa said in a statement.
While the lifeguard shortage is most visible at outdoor pools this summer, it’s also affected indoor pools, which are open year-round.
Maria Contreras Collier, a resident of Jamaica, Queens, used to attend senior swim programs each week at the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Aquatic Center. But the programs were abruptly halted once the summer season started and lifeguards were reassigned from the center.
The center’s staff scrambled to fill holes, creating confusion, Collier said.
“They weren’t sure what was going to happen – they didn’t post the calendar for the following period,” Collier said. “And they said they were going to take a week off. And when people started going back to the classes, they said, ‘I’m sorry, the classes are not happening.’”
Collier said the classes returned — but wasn’t confident they’d continue as scheduled.