NYC First Responders Are Ready to Work as Lifeguards, but City Hall Is Enforcing a 30-Year Old Rule That Won’t Let Them
The Parks Department is facing a dire shortage of lifeguards for the city’s dozens of pools and beaches with just 480 certified guards.
New York’s lifeguard shortage isn’t being helped by a city rule dating more than 30 years that forbids some city workers from moonlighting at pools and beaches — which came as a surprise to some prospective lifeguards who said they received denials for the first time this year.
City Hall is denying waivers that previously allowed city first responders to also work swim shifts for the Department of Parks and Recreation, rejection letters obtained by THE CITY indicate. A spokesperson for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services confirmed the denial policy.
The rejections of veteran lifeguards come as the city struggles with fewer than half as many guards as it needs this summer — with Mayor Eric Adams blaming the crunch on a “national lifeguard shortage.”
The decision was tied to financial belt-tightening, according to DCAS, which said it is simply enforcing a rule dating from 1987. It includes some firefighters and EMTs, who already have some of the certifications required to be a lifeguard.
“In an effort to mitigate excessive overtime costs, the city has adopted a policy that restricts dual employment when both employers are mayoral agencies, in titles covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act,” DCAS spokesperson Anessa Hodgson told THE CITY.
She said that since 2019, DCAS has denied 12 requests out of 33 submitted.
But that came as a surprise to some lifeguards who said they hadn’t previously had any issues picking up shifts at the beach after working their full-time sanitation and fire jobs or as EMTs.
“We’re short as hell today and it’s for no reason — we could use the manpower and they’re denying people for no reason when they could easily do both,” said one current beach lifeguard on Friday, who didn’t want his name used out of fear of retribution.
So far, only 480 certified lifeguards are available to work at city-owned beaches and pools but the goal is between 1,400 and 1,500, according to Crystal Howard, a spokeswoman for the Parks Department.
Candidates have until July 4 to qualify, which requires rigorous swimming tests that most fail. The agency anticipates adding more to the ranks over the coming weeks.
But the shortage has already forced the cancellation of multiple programs, including Early Bird and Night Owl lap swims, water aerobics, day camps and swim lessons — all a disappointing repeat of 2021 for pool enthusiasts.
“Like the entire country, it’s been a challenge recruiting enough qualified people who can pass the NYC lifeguard requirements, and pandemic impacts on recruitment continue,” Howard said.
“Safety is our top priority — it’s because of this that we prioritize access to the millions who visit our pools annually rather than redirecting resources to ancillary programming,” she added.
Even before COVID threw cold water on the city, the number of certified guards had been declining over the last few years, according to Parks data, with a steep drop off from 2016, when there were 1,530 lifeguards employed by the city.
By summer 2021, Parks employed only 1,013 lifeguards.
The city’s 14 miles of public beaches opened to swimmers Memorial Day weekend, though with large stretches of water unguarded. Its 53 outdoor pools open June 28.
“We continue to encourage all former NYC Parks Lifeguards, who are in condition, to come out and get re-certified for the Summer 2022 season,” Howard said.
In the past, the city has struggled to meet their hiring goals for lifeguards. In the early 2000s, the city recruited overseas swimmers to fill the talent pool.
Vets Looking for Help
Veteran lifeguards say the shortage in New York City is more than just the reflection of a nationwide staffing issue. They pointed to documented years-long mismanagement within the Parks Department that prompted a citywide probe last year.
A 20-page report from the Department of Investigation detailed the issues plaguing Parks’ swim team — making 13 recommendations to “correct deficiencies in the management and operation of the Lifeguard Division.”
Those fixes included improving the disciplinary system and assigning managers to deploy staff to dangerous beaches. But those reforms had not been fully implemented by the start of this beach season.
The DOI report was largely triggered by a June 2020 New York magazine investigation into Peter Stein, the head of the NYC Lifeguard Supervisors Local 508 of District Council 37. He’s led the unit for more than 40 years and controls where lifeguards are placed as well as hiring and certifying decisions.
Stein did not respond to questions for the DOI report and told THE CITY to “have a wonderful day” before hanging up when he was reached by phone on Friday.
The shortage “is just another symptom of their mismanagement,” said a lifeguard with 20 years of experience on the beach who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
Longtime lifeguard Janet Fash, 62, has been working since 1979 — and has been blowing the whistle on her union and the Parks Department for more than 20 years.
She said there have been few changes despite multiple attempts from lifeguards, many who are afraid to speak to the media out of fear of retaliation.
“The union uses the system against lifeguards,” said Fash. “Peter Stein controls everything.”
She and other lifeguards alleged that experienced members have been pushed out as retaliation for participating in a union trial prompted by the New York investigation. And it’s easy to do since New York City’s lifeguard examination is shrouded in secrecy, according to Fash and multiple other lifeguards who’ve taken it for years.
The Parks Department requires a weeks-long training class and CPR certification, as well as two swim tests, to become a city lifeguard each season.
Depending on your time for the final test of swimming 440 yards, you could be placed at a pool or a beach. Faster swimmers get sent to the beach, where more serious rescues are required, according to officials.
But candidates aren’t told their results: they’re just told if they passed or failed.
By contrast, in other municipalities, lifeguards are all told how they did on a swim test — or it’s posted on a board for everyone to see, according to multiple lifeguards who have taken those tests.
A spokeswoman for the Parks Department disputed that, saying there is a timing clock on the wall of the test pool.
This year, 923 people took the qualifying swim test, but just 240 have so far passed, according to the Parks Department.
At Jones Beach on Long Island, new and returning guards compete in an “open swim” where you can see each other’s times, according to lifeguard Barbara Cronin-Stagnari.
The 60-year-old swimming official and Iron Man trainer spent years as a lifeguard in Rockaway Beach in the 1980s before returning to the beach at Jones 9 years ago.
She said the state-run exam is much fairer.
“Your time is on the wall for all to see,” she said of their swim tests, which are different from those in New York City and also include an open ocean test, which the Parks Department doesn’t require.
But the biggest difference is the transparency: “There’s no BS on any of the tests,” she said.
Down the Shore
Even within the city, nearby beaches not operated by the Parks Department don’t appear to be facing any lifeguard shortages this summer, although YMCA pools are still hiring.
The federally operated Jacob Riis Park will not have a shortage of guards this summer, Gateway National Recreation Area spokesperson Daphne Yun told THE CITY.
One Parks lieutenant lifeguard who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the issue is with recruitment and the pay. City guards make $16 an hour to start, and work six days a week.
“The pay is the same as working somewhere else that’s not as crazy,” he said. Starting salaries for those lifeguards is around the same for city guards, and Jones Beach lifeguards start off at $19 an hour.
It’s pennies perhaps compared to the pay for guards across the country in Los Angeles, where an audit recently found some guards were making $500,000 a year.
Since New York City lifeguards are union members, any increase in pay would be the subject of a new contract and collective bargaining, according to the Parks Department.
On recruitment, Howard said the Parks Department has more than doubled its efforts to bring in more lifeguards this summer — extending the qualifying season into late April and spending thousands of dollars on ads in newspapers across the city, as well as digital advertising.
The department said it also reached out to more than 300 school principals and 3,000 coaches to recruit more guards and held 29 qualifying sessions — nearly double last year’s number.
And officials sent out emails to local colleges, triathlon groups and other swim organizations to find lifeguards, Howard said.
Fash said the city could employ many more lifeguards to work at its dozens of pools if the Parks Department administered different tests for ocean and pool guards.
“If they actually had a fair test for the pool lifeguards there would be more New York City residents that would pass that,” she said.
At the 24 branches of the YMCA that have pools throughout New York City, they’ve added on a $250 sign-on bonus for new lifeguards and offer a starting pay of $18 an hour, according to Mary O’Donoghue, the senior director for aquatics for the YMCA for Greater New York.
They hire 200 lifeguards year-round and usually add another 200 during the summer, but it’s been hard getting more staff.
“To run our programs at full capacity, we need more lifeguards,” O’Donoughue told THE CITY.
They’ve tackled the issue from all ages – making TikTok videos to attract younger lifeguards and also recruiting retirees who might want to make some extra money working at pools. They are continuing to work on their summer hiring goals, she said.
“Everybody is short,” she said.