Failed Swimmers Get Second Chance in City Bid to Shore Up Lifeguard Shortage
Dozens of applicants who’d previously failed the qualifying tests were sent automated text messages this week from the Parks Department gauging their interest in taking a new accelerated class to become lifeguards.
City Hall is scrambling to hire more lifeguards before a July 4 deadline as New York City faces its worst shortage in recent history — considering emergency measures including calling up just-barely failed applicants, offering accelerated classes, and even end-of-season bonuses.
The Department of Parks and Recreation says it currently has only 720 people to monitor beaches and pools as of Thursday, but aims for nearly 1,000 more.
Around 61 applicants who took the lifeguard qualifying test more than twice this year and failed were sent automated text messages this week from the Parks Department gauging their interest in taking a new class to become guards, according to an official and a copy of the text viewed by THE CITY.
“Hello! Are you interested in an accelerated lifeguard training class to work with NYC Parks this summer? Reply here YES or NO. Thank you!,” the message to a person who had previously failed the test read.
As of Tuesday, no one had signed up to take the classes, according to Crystal Howard, an agency spokesperson. As seasonal employees, the lifeguards have to be fully qualified and hired by July 4, according to city rules.
Meanwhile, Mayor Eric Adams’ administration has been in talks with District Council 37 officials on recruitment and retention of lifeguards, according to Henry Garrido, the union’s executive director. The city’s largest union representing municipal workers, DC37 includes the two local chapters that represent lifeguards and their supervisors.
The union’s biggest concern is the starting salary of $16 an hour, but they’re also working out scheduling issues, training concerns, and redeployment of lifeguards around smaller pools and beaches, he said.
And they’re pushing the city for a retention grant that would pay a bonus at the end of the summer to lifeguards who stayed all season, Garrido said.
He noted the lifeguard shortage was made worse after Gov. Kathy Hochul raised lifeguard wages for state-run beaches and pools since it didn’t affect city guards.
“We’re challenged because the state raised the lifeguard salaries by 34% across the board,” he said. “A lot of our folks are being poached or voluntarily leaving…this has been one of the most difficult summers.”
Kate Smart, a spokesperson for City Hall, said they were working on more than just pay raises to hire more lifeguards.
“We are in active negotiations with the lifeguard union to overcome outdated agreements that are preventing us from getting lifeguards into chairs regardless of the pay rate we offer,” she said in a statement.
The number of city lifeguards has declined each year since 2016, Parks Department data shows. Last year, there were 1,013 lifeguards for the summer – down from 1,530 in 2016. Some veteran guards told THE CITY earlier this month that the Adams administration also enforced for the first time a decades-old rule that prohibits city employees like a firefighter from working part-time at the beach.
Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue said Tuesday at the official opening of the city pools that the Parks Department expects rolling pool closings and crowd limits because of the sentry shortage — in addition to the summer-wide cancelation of various beloved programs and swim classes.
She and other Parks Department officials encouraged anyone who has previously worked as a lifeguard to sign back up. It’s too late in the year for new guards to become certified in time, since it requires a weeks-long training program for first-year guards, according to Donoghue.
“We’re really focused on any returning lifeguards — people who’ve been lifeguards in the past, we’re encouraging them to come back and get recertified,” she told THE CITY after diving into the Hamilton Fish pool on the Lower East Side earlier this week.
“We are working to get as many lifeguards as possible to be certified to be able to be out in the water with us.”
The issues with the Parks Department’s lifeguards didn’t start this summer. A 20-page report from the Department of Investigation, triggered by a 2020 New York magazine investigation into its union leaders, detailed those issues and made 13 recommendations to improve what it called “deficiencies in the management and operation of the Lifeguard Division.” Those issues had not yet been fixed by the start of the beach season.
Garrido declined to comment on issues within the union.
“I’m here for solutions, trying to fix the problems that are there, none of that other nonsense,” he said.
The shortage concerned swimmers across the city, including those at Asser Levy Recreation Center on Manhattan’s East Side.
Jaqcuelin Carnegie, who said she’s been coming to the Asser Levy pool for more than 20 years, bemoaned the loss of lap swimming, which was cut due to the lack of lifeguards.
“Before, if the kids started coming in early you could stay or you could go,” she said of the canceled lap swimming programs, which helped give older swimmers some quiet time. “But at least you had a choice.”
Other people across the city were disappointed to find their local pools were shuttered despite no information on the Parks Department’s website.
“The Parham Playground pool is CLOSED because the City has not supplied a lifeguard,” tweeted one woman about a playground swimming hole in Fort Greene. “So many disappointed families today. Please staff up and open this pool.”
At Asser Levy, Kieran Stevens, 50, a stay-at-home mom from Gramercy, was visiting the pool with her 3-year-old daughter Ella on Wednesday and said she was concerned that just one lifeguard was on duty, she said.
“I’m hoping they add more [lifeguards], just for capacity reasons,” she said. “I don’t know how many people they can let in.”