Why Salt Lake County swimmers are frustrated — and it has nothing to do with the water

A deeper pool of lifeguards is needed as South Jordan residents send in a petition demanding action.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A lifeguard on duty at the pool at the South Jordan Fitness & Aquatics Center on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.

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Those looking to swim a few laps before work or during the day or even well into the evening can’t use Salt Lake County’s pool in South Jordan.

That part of the aquatic center is closed. So is the lazy river. And there are significant restrictions on the deep end of the pool, too.

The county simply doesn’t have enough lifeguards, so it has shut down much of the pool, which has spawned an outcry from those who rely on the water for exercise and therapy.

Frustrated swimmers sent County Council Chair Steve DeBry a petition with about 70 signatures calling for the full pool to open. DeBry raised the concern with county parks and recreation leaders at a work meeting earlier this month.

“To me, it is unacceptable,” he said. “It is unacceptable to our citizens and our taxpayers.”

While the outdoor pools are closed for the season, the county still has nine indoor ones in operation.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lifeguard Alexa Anderton at the pool at the South Jordan Fitness & Aquatics Center on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.

The South Jordan Fitness & Aquatic Center normally employs 115 lifeguards but it now has only 50, which is why the closures are so broad. The JL Sorenson Recreation Center in Herriman is in the same predicament. Salt Lake City has three county-run pools, and all have half the normal number of lifeguards.

The only pools that are close to fully staffed — and therefore have limited disruptions if any — are the Gene Fullmer Recreation Center in West Jordan and the Dimple Dell Recreation Center in Sandy.

In all, the county should have nearly 700 lifeguards to run its pools. Right now, it has 377.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The county believes the shortage is related to the pandemic and the tight labor market.

“It is really tough when you have Costco paying $18 per hour and fast food paying in the teens,” said Martin Jensen, the director for Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation.

He said it is also possible some potential lifeguards are not comfortable performing the job because of COVID-19. If a swimmer needs help, a lifeguard not only pulls the person from the water but also often gives CPR and possibly mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

“Lifeguarding is a close-contact job,” Jensen said.

During the summer, the county relied on high school students to fill many of the lifeguard spots, but when schools opened this fall, those young people returned to class.

In a normal year, the county would cobble together a collection of college students, retirees and stay-at-home parents.

Not this year.

“We’ve been scrambling,” Jensen said. “We are putting all of the lines in the water, but we are not getting any bites.”

That means week-to-week closures, sometimes made more difficult when a lifeguard calls in sick.

Tom Chapman, a retiree in South Jordan, is a regular and said he is “thankful as all get out that we have the hours that the pool is open.”

Back in 1983, while returning from a funeral, the car Chapman was traveling in got hit from behind. The collision forced the vehicle into oncoming traffic, where it was then struck by a semitruck. Everyone survived, but Chapman had fractures in his back and neck that have caused him considerable pain ever since.

Now, he and his wife, Nina, go to the South Jordan pool five mornings a week to take part in a deep-water aerobics class. Moving to the music, the exercise helps loosen up his back.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The pool at the South Jordan Fitness & Aquatics Center on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.

“The reason I’m still walking around and able to keep doing what I’m doing,” the 71-year-old Chapman said, “is I can get in that deep water and decompress my spine every day.”

He used to walk in the lazy river as well, but that hasn’t been open for a long time. The Chapmans were among the first to sign the petition. He also sent a letter to DeBry expressing his frustration over the limitations.

The city used to run the pool, but it moved to county control in spring 2020. Chapman has been doing deep-water aerobics the whole time. He said the county requires more lifeguards than the city used to, partly because it uses the StarGuard Elite training program.

Jensen said that’s true and so far the county isn’t talking about switching to the less-stringent Red Cross program. He said safety remains the county’s top priority.

“You have to have people guard the pool,” Jensen said. “You can’t just open it up.”

Jensen said the loudest complaints have come from South Jordan, but staffers have fielded calls from throughout the county.

DeBry, who represents South Jordan, said his sympathies lie with taxpayers who can’t use the public pools.

“It’s their facility,” he said.

Despite his frustration at the council meeting, DeBry expressed support for Jensen and the staffers trying to recruit more lifeguards.

“I understand the plight,” DeBry said. “If you look at the market in general, if you look at the workforce, it is just depleted.”

He said the council is “feverishly trying to work to get fair market wages” for lifeguards and other jobs, including those in the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices.

It takes about three to four weeks for a lifeguard to get trained. The county pays $8 an hour for someone in training and then $9.55 an hour after that. But for the hard-to-fill hours from 5:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., the county is now offering “surge pay,” which can reach $16 an hour.

Anyone interested in becoming a lifeguard can go to slco.org/jobs or walk into a recreation center and talk to an employee. Jensen said they would quickly get qualified recruits some training and a whistle.