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Parks Dept. Bosses Join Lifeguards for Rare Meeting After Rocky Summer Season

All the city’s indoor pools were closed Thursday so lifeguards could attend an hours-long ‘meet and greet’ at Chelsea Recreation Center in Manhattan, the first such gathering with the commish in recent memory.

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A lifeguard overlooked opening day at Hamilton Fish Pool in the Lower East Side, June 28, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

New York City’s full-time lifeguards had an unusual all-hands meeting with the city parks commissioner on Thursday, as the agency looks to buoy staffing after summerlong shortages at pools and beaches. 

All of the city’s indoor pools were closed so lifeguards could attend the hours-long “meet and greet” at the Chelsea Recreation Center in Manhattan. The divisionwide gathering with the boss was the first in recent memory, officials and lifeguards said.

Dept. of Parks & Recreation Commissioner Sue Donoghue, who was appointed to the top job in February, thanked the lifeguards and praised their work “as we faced formidable challenges,” according to a copy of her prepared remarks obtained by THE CITY. 

“Our entire lifeguard staff were absolutely crucial to this summer’s accomplishments,” she said. 

Donoghue even quoted Mayor Eric Adams’ oft-repeated phrase: “We got stuff done.”

She and seven other deputy and assistant parks commissioners were at the meeting, according to the agenda, and spoke about the different divisions within the agency that work alongside lifeguards. Everyone was served pizza between sessions.

“They happily spent a number of hours today with staff orientating them to the agency, questions-and-answer, and lunch,” parks department spokesperson Crystal Howard told THE CITY. 

Although Donoghue has held various meetings with staffers since taking office, Howard confirmed it was the first of its kind between the commissioner, the deputies, and the lifeguards.

A sign outside the pool at Chelsea Recreation Center directed participants in a rare meeting.

Katie Honan/THE CITY

Even for longtime lifeguards, the meeting served as an introduction to the parks department as whole, Howard added. 

One summer lifeguard with more than a decade of experience who did not attend Thursday’s meeting told THE CITY that meetings between the parks department and the year-round lifeguards are “unheard of.”

Sources said that’s because of tensions between the department and unionized workers led by Peter Stein, the controversial, decades-long head of the NYC Lifeguard Supervisors Local 508 of DC 37.

Stein and other officials organized, and then canceled, a union-wide video conference for Wednesday ahead of the parks department meeting, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

Stein did not respond to a text message and phone call seeking comment. 

Responding after this story was originally published, a spokesperson for DC 37 on Friday denied any Wednesday meeting was planned.

Simmering Summer

The meeting comes after a busy summer season marred by a lifeguard shortage that forced the cancellation of several learn-to-swim programs and lap swimming at all pools, along with lower capacity limits and rolling closures of larger pools and some public beaches.

There were two recorded drownings on the same day in Rockaway Beach last summer, although they happened on beaches that were closed.

To help recruit and retain guards, the city struck a temporary deal to increase starting pay for lifeguards from $16 to $19 an hour. The parks department also made the test for smaller pools easier and moved its strongest swimmers to monitor large pools and beaches. 

It also instituted a year-end bonus for summer lifeguards who stayed the entire season, through the weekend after Labor Day. A City Hall spokesperson in September said 225 lifeguards were set to receive the bonus.

Although the shortage was similar to what cities around the country faced, longtime lifeguards said the powerful union that represents them exacerbated the problem by failing longtime lifeguards on the swim test, which many describe as an opaque process. 

The city’s lifeguard school was the subject of a Department of Investigation probe last year that made more than a dozen reform recommendations — none of which were implemented in time for the beach season just past, THE CITY found

At the start of the summer, the parks department also began enforcing a 35-year-old rule that forbade some city workers from moonlighting at pools and beaches — although multiple guards had done so for years. The waivers that allowed already CPR-certified city employees like firefighters and EMTs to work the water on their days off were denied for the first time last summer, according to multiple lifeguards. 

City Hall later reversed the change after THE CITY reported on it. 

Adams in June said he would look at other policy changes, such as improving equipment and training, to help modernize the city’s lifeguard program.

“Our goal is to find a safe way to ensure that we can open as many beaches as possible and have as many lifeguards as possible,” he said months ago, at the peak of the summer season. 

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