A week before the unofficial start of summer, the city Department of Parks and Recreation is still facing a lifeguard shortage even after boosting pay and recruitment — having just a third of the guards needed to fully staff its beaches and pools, the commissioner said at a budget hearing Monday.

Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue told City Council members that the agency has 280 returning lifeguards completing training and 200 new lifeguard recruits coming on board days before the city’s 14 miles of public beaches open Memorial Day weekend.

Last summer, the city had 529 guards by the end of June, when public outdoor pools opened. Ideally, however, the Parks Dept. would like to have 1,400 lifeguards, Donoghue said. 

“We are in the throes of a national lifeguard shortage,” she told Council members. “That continues.” 

The shortfall comes in spite of boosting the starting lifeguard salary to $21 an hour this year and adding a $1,000 bonus for those who stay through the end of the season. It also follows increases in recruiting efforts, new offers of free training, and tweaks to the qualifying test.

The beach and pool season doesn’t peak until the July 4 weekend, Donoghue said, but it’s unclear how many new lifeguards could still be hired since the training sessions are already over. People who have already worked at city beaches and pools, however, can return.

Last year’s lifeguard shortage caused rolling pool and beach closures and the pausing of popular pool programs like learn to swim and early lap swimming. This summer, though, the Learn to Swim program is returning in a limited capacity, the commissioner announced earlier this month

Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner Sue Donoghue speaks at City Hall about beach safety, May 12, 2023. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“We know how important access to our pools and learning how to swim is to New Yorkers across the city and, despite a national lifeguard shortage that has continued to shutter pools in cities across the country, we’re doing all that we can to recruit as many lifeguards as possible,” Donoghue said in a statement on May 12.

She added that “after an aggressive recruitment campaign over the winter, it is now abundantly clear that we must continue to plan long-term for the lifeguard shortage as we build back our corps to pre-pandemic levels.” 

Part of that long-term strategy, she added, was teaching more New Yorkers how to swim.

A spokesperson for the Parks Department, Meghan Lalor, said they didn’t anticipate many disruptions this summer despite the continued shortage. 

“We were able to open up all pools and beaches last year, and our goal is to do that again this year,” Lalor said. 

Councilmember Shekar Krishnan (D-Queens), who chairs the Parks Committee, told THE CITY that while he was happy with the department’s efforts to boost recruitment, it clearly wasn’t enough.

“The reality is what you’re seeing as we go into year two of this — we’re not going to emerge from this crisis anytime soon without doing things very differently,” Krishnan said.

“This is an urgent crisis in our city and it’s only growing more urgent when you look at how important it is for all New Yorkers, especially children, to learn how to swim.”

From Ocean to Forest

Lifeguards are just one of the hard-to-fill jobs the Parks Department talked about during the executive budget hearing.

Others include tree pruners and climbers who conduct maintenance on the approximately 800,000 trees in the agency’s purview, Donoghue said.

The lack of tree cutters has caused the agency to continue to work with a pruning company, Dragonetti Brothers Landscaping, that was placed under a Department of Investigation monitorship last year after its owners were charged with insurance fraud. 

To fill the trimmer roles, the agency got $3.3 million in the executive budget over the next few fiscal years for a 15-month Arborist Apprenticeship Program, which will allow the city to train climbers and pruners, according to the City Council’s finance team. 

“It’s a great full-time job, it’s one that many New Yorkers don’t think about — being outside and caring for trees. We feel like it’s an incredible opportunity to bring people into the agency, they can build a great career,” Donoghue said Monday. 

The program will pay for 25 associate park service workers, five climber-pruners, five park supervisors, two community coordinators, a deputy director, and a director, according to the City Council. 

Tree maintenance has been a thorny issue for the Parks Department since the beginning of the pandemic, when the work was suspended. Pruning in Brooklyn and Queens was then cut for months after the owners of Dragonetti, one of the department’s top contractors, were indicted on accusations of evading more than $1 million in insurance premiums while repairing city roads and sidewalks.

The department, whose total budget is 0.6% of the city’s $106.7 billion budget, has increased 4.8% since the preliminary financial plan — mostly from a collective bargaining agreement with District Council 37 and an increase in the city’s contract with the Central Park Conservancy, which manages the park.

But it did not receive a requested $46 million to hire more workers, nor a requested $22.5 million to hire 30 more Parks Enforcement Police officers.

Parks also did not receive a requested $2 million to help with tree stump removal, $4.1 million for its Urban Park Rangers program, and just over $5 million for its Green Thumb and forest maintenance programs.