Salt Lake County swimmers are facing less time in the water this summer as officials scramble to fill hundreds of vacant lifeguard positions.
The severe shortage — a problem in communities around the world — means fewer outdoor pools will be open to start the summer, and the indoor ones that already are operating will have reduced hours.
Doranne Pittz, a recreation division administrator for Salt Lake County, said the county needs to hire 400 to 500 lifeguards between now and Memorial Day weekend to meet its ideal staffing levels and stave off any disruptions to pool hours and programs.
In a normal year, the county receives upward of 50 lifeguard applications daily, Pittz said. This year, however, county officials are lucky to get 20 applicants a week.
“It’s pretty dire,” she said.
The inability to attract job candidates means deep cuts to outdoor operations. Pittz said the county will try to open as many of its outdoor pools as it can Memorial Day weekend, then scale back, operating pools only on a regional basis until schools get out and help to fill out staffing levels.
Typically, pools are going strong from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, but this year is hardly typical.
Officials plan to open four of the county’s largest outdoor pools for regular weekday operations, but a list of locations has not been finalized. The remaining ones will offer limited hours and staggered openings to ensure safety with adequate staffing.
“If we don’t have the guards to open a pool safely,” Pittz said, “it will be closed for the summer.”
The county’s nine indoor pools, which remain open in the offseason, already have cut their hours. All locations except for the Salt Lake City Sports Complex are closed from noon to 4 p.m. on weekdays.
What are private pools doing?
Private pools have also felt the staffing pinch, although the labor problems are easing for some.
“We’ve had a chronic lifeguard shortage,” said Andrea Alcabes, the CEO of the IJ & Jeanne Wagner Jewish Community Center near the University of Utah Hospital. “I would say we’ve finally dealt with it.”
To entice more applicants, the community center bumped up pay and is refunding the cost of certification for those who complete the program and choose to work there.
Alcabes said the center keeps only one of its two pools available for swimmers while many of its lifeguards are still in school. She expects swimmers to have access to both pools this summer, however.
The Salt Lake Tennis and Health Club, meanwhile, has about half the lifeguards it needs to fully staff its pool for the summer.
Julie Tate, the club’s aquatics director, said she has interviews lined up for this week and remains “cautiously hopeful” about plugging any gaps. Like the community center, the club has raised pay for lifeguards.
But slashing hours, she said, isn’t an option. If supervisors need to work longer shifts and the club has to rely on existing employees certified in lifeguarding, she said, the facility is willing to do it.
“We’ll do whatever we have to do to keep the pool open,” Tate said. “Because our primary concern is to service our members.”
‘Baywatch’ effect? What’s driving the lifeguard shortage?
Utah’s most populous county employs about 600 lifeguards but needs up to 500 more to complete its roster.
It’s a global problem, according to Bernard J. Fisher, director of health and safety for the American Lifeguard Association.
“The shortage,” he said, “is the worst it’s ever been.”
Fisher said because of factors that have snowballed for decades, at least a third of the 309,000 public pools in the United States either will close or be forced to trim their hours this summer.
Nationally, disruption to a visa program for foreign workers meant tens of thousands of potential lifeguards were taken out of the workforce. Salt Lake County, however, says it wasn’t affected by that because it didn’t rely on the program to recruit employees.
And young people who typically dive into the lifeguard jobs just aren’t as interested as they used to be, Fisher said, adding that hiring retirees may be one solution.
As for the waning interest of younger candidates, Fisher suggested the job may not be as attractive because it isn’t as visible in popular culture.
“When ‘Baywatch’ got taken off TV, we stopped having the interest as we had before,” he said. “And that may sound silly, but that is a fact.”
Whether a lack of “Baywatch” reruns is actually driving the dearth of lifeguards in Utah may be up for debate, but Fisher and the county do agree on one cause for the lack of labor: the pandemic.
Pittz, the county recreation division administrator, said would-be applicants may be afraid to take on a first-responder role after going through a public health crisis. And, like many other industries, job seekers want higher pay and more flexible hours.
“It’s an employees’ market right now, because everybody’s in a staff shortage,” said Amber Milne, a county recreation manager.
And the labor pains in county aquatics, she said, are not a new phenomenon. Staffing levels, she said, have been sinking for about a decade — and worsening in the wake of the coronavirus.
To make the position more alluring, she said, the county started paying for new employees to get their lifeguard certifications a few years ago. That cost — at least a couple of hundred dollars — used to be picked up by applicants.
Milne said another factor is that some prospective applicants just don’t know how to swim, a problem that intensified during the pandemic because the county could not offer lessons at one point.
How the county is trying to land lifeguards
In an effort to stay competitive, the county boosted wages for lifeguards twice in the past two years.
New hires now make $14 an hour as they go through training. Once they complete the program, their pay jumps to $15.55 an hour. Lifeguard wages for the county top out at $19 an hour.
The county is trying to get the word out with advertising and job fairs. It also hosts events that allow job seekers to stop by a pool and see what lifeguarding is all about.
In addition, employees can pocket a $25 gift card for each new lifeguard they successfully recruit.
But the best thing officials can do, Pittz said, is ensure potential applicants know they’re walking into a fun, supportive and safe working environment.
Applications to be a Salt Lake County lifeguard may be submitted at bit.ly/slcoguard.
Correction • May 20, 3:10 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the pay of Salt Lake County lifeguards.