Lifeguard School’s Lesson: Parks Department Bosses Are the Enemy
Union-run mandatory workshops double as outlets for anti-management messages, while staff shortages keep stretches of beach closed.
At New York City’s lifeguard school, students aren’t just taught about how to save a drowning victim or spot a rip current.
They’re also warned about Department of Parks and Recreation bosses by leaders of the controversial unions that represent lifeguards at city-run beaches and pools — and that have nearly complete control over operations.
Those include the lifeguard school, which has for years been unofficially run by union brass on the Parks Department payroll, according to multiple people familiar with the set-up.
At a mandatory CPR class last month at the Chelsea Recreation Center on West 25th Street in Manhattan, the instructor spent the first 20 minutes of the nearly four-hour session warning lifeguards about Iris Rodriguez-Rosa, the Parks Department’s new first deputy commissioner, according to one lifeguard who attended and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Rodriguez-Rosa was appointed after longtime first deputy commissioner Liam Kavanagh retired last year. Kavanagh was cited multiple times in a 2021 Department of Investigation report on inefficiencies and issues within the lifeguard division, whose safety recommendations remained unaddressed by the Parks Department months after the report was released.
Since then, the new deputy commissioner has made changes to help boost recruitment in the face of a dire shortage of lifeguards to cover the city’s nearly 100 indoor and outdoor pools, and its 14 miles of beaches, stretches of which are closed for lack of lifeguards.
Rodriguez-Rosa also has made incremental moves to reduce the power and influence of the unions, like doing outreach to seasonal workers about full-time lifeguard jobs – something that historically has run through the unions, Local 461 and Local 508, both within District Council 37.
But according to multiple lifeguards, the changes apparently have rattled union leaders, who teach aspiring lifeguards how to work at beaches and pools.
This was clear at the CPR class, where lifeguards were warned that “the new deputy commissioner” was sending people from the Parks Department to “spy” on them.
Rodriguez-Rosa didn’t look out for them like Kavanagh had, the instructor told the 12 or so students in the class, adding that they “need to watch out for ourselves, we need to take care of each other.”
The instructor also bragged about kicking some of Rodriguez-Rosa’s employees off the pool deck when they came to observe a test, forcing the deputy commissioner to go to the pool herself.
Thea Setterbo, a spokesperson for DC 37, did not respond to emails seeking comment. Henry Garrido, the union’s president, did not respond to a call and message seeking comment.
A spokesperson for the Department of Parks and Recreation, Meghan Lalor, said that the agency expects “all Parks staff, including lifeguards, to support a work culture that’s respectful. Any complaints about people being treated unfairly should be reported to Parks.”
The changes to the lifeguard division within the Parks Department have been small but noticeable to longtime lifeguards, several of them told THE CITY.
Last October, the Parks Department held a meeting between Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue and year-round lifeguards at the Chelsea pool — the first such meeting between the commissioner, deputies and lifeguards, according to a Parks Department spokesperson.
And in late December, seasonal lifeguards received a letter in the mail notifying them of a full-time position at one of the parks system’s indoor pools, asking them to email their interest to the Parks Department. This surprised many longtime lifeguards who said those full-time jobs were usually doled out by the union — a practice that was confirmed by the Parks Department.
Rodriguez-Rosa told THE CITY in an interview in January that the changes came down to “communication and transparency.”
But those priorities are up against an urgent need to find more lifeguards this summer.
So far, 266 certified lifeguards are ready to work at the 14 miles of public beaches in New York City, which officially opened on Memorial Day weekend. Around 200 more could get to work by the time pools open at the end of June, a spokesperson said.
That would be less than a third of the 1,400 lifeguards the Parks Department ideally likes to have. Commissioner Donoghue testified at the City Council last month that lifeguards are some of the most difficult jobs for the agency to fill amid a nationwide shortage since the pandemic.
To help keep all beaches open since Memorial Day, the Parks Department has even been busing some lifeguards from Rockaway Beach in Queens to Wolfe’s Pond Beach on Staten Island — a journey that requires crossing two bridges.
Some say inflexible schedules and union rules hinder any real expansion of the lifeguard program.
Last summer, Alexander Kidder read about a shortage of lifeguards and took the qualifying swim test to see if he could help keep Jefferson Pool near his East Harlem home open.
At nearly age 50, Kidder said it had been decades since he worked as a lifeguard, but he still swam a few miles a day.
He passed the first swim test easily last summer — one of only a handful of people who did that day — but was surprised by the first three-hour training class, he said.
The focus from the instructors was not on ways to keep swimmers safe, Kidder said, but on the powerful union that would represent them if they became lifeguards.
“The content was a pro-union tirade that explained why the union is so critical to the functioning of the guards and all the great things guards get as a result,” he said.
When they weren’t told about their union, trainees sat on the pool deck to watch “vintage lifesaving videos,” Kidder said. Those videos are the documentary life-saving films made by Francesco Pia, whose two films — “On Drowning,” filmed at Orchard Beach in 1970, and “Reasons People Drown,” released in 1983 — remain at the core of lifeguard training in the city.
Kidder completed a few more classes but did not finish the training after learning he would not be able to work part-time — and that he would not work locally, but could be sent to any pool in the city.
“I’d spent 10 hours at that point attending required training and tests for lifeguarding in the city,” he told THE CITY. “I was devastated and frustrated that the city was unable to accept the help that is so clearly needed.”
Pia, who began working as a lifeguard at Orchard Beach in 1959, when he turned 16, is an expert on water safety and drowning — popularizing the “Pia carry” method of rescuing a drowning non-swimmer in distress and other tools.
He told THE CITY that his videos are still relevant in teaching prospective lifeguards how to spot a swimmer in distress, but that there always need to be enough guards to work properly.
“It is going to be a challenge because the lifeguards need to have the breaks from surveillance,” meaning watching the water, Pia said about another summer with a guard shortage.
“If you keep them up there for a long period of time without a surveillance break you interfere with their ability to quickly detect.”