Treading water: Some area pools struggling to find lifeguards

  • The pool at Nonotuck Park in Easthampton has not opened since before the COVID-19 pandemic and currently does not have enough lifeguards to open this summer. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The pool at Nonotuck Park in Easthampton has not opened since before the COVID-19 pandemic and currently does not have enough lifeguards to open this summer. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The pool at Nonotuck Park in Easthampton has not opened since before the COVID-19 pandemic and currently does not have enough lifeguards to open this summer. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A sign indicating there are no lifeguards on duty at Musante Beach in Northampton. The beach does not officially open on the weekdays until June 19, at which point the city is hoping to have enough lifeguards to open at full hours. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A sign indicating there are no lifeguards on duty at Musante Beach in Northampton. The beach does not officially open on the weekdays until June 19, at which point the city is hoping to have enough lifeguards to open at full hours. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jim Miller, aquatics supervisor for the Northampton Parks and Recreation Department, stands at an empty lifeguard chair at Mustante Beach on Thursday afternoon. The beach does not officially open on the weekdays until June 19 at which point they are hoping to have hired enough lifeguards to be fully staffed. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/11/2021 2:01:34 PM

EASTHAMPTON — As temperatures rise and COVID-19 measures lift, many are looking forward to getting back to favorite summer pastimes such as swimming. Despite this demand, some public pools may not open or will open only at reduced hours because of a shortage of lifeguards.

In Easthampton, the pool at Nonotuck Park has remained closed since it finished its summer 2019 season. The pool still isn’t ready to open, according to John Mason, the city’s director of Parks and Recreation, and won’t be until the department can hire more lifeguards.

“This is the first time we’ve experienced anything like this,” Mason said. “We’ve posted (the job) and sent out social media everywhere we could possibly send it, and I know it’s not just us — it’s all over … Berkshires to Cape Cod, everyone’s in the same predicament.”

While this predicament is new for Nonotuck Park, the American Lifeguard Association reports that the lifeguard shortage has been brewing for years on a nationwide level. Pandemic-related closures exacerbated this issue, the organization told the Boston Globe, with some certification or recertification classes forced to close down or limit class sizes in accordance with social distancing measures. International workers looking for seasonal work are also having difficulty obtaining visas, according to the organization, which also limits the applicant pool.

The pool at Nonotuck Park usually staffs six to eight lifeguards, Mason said. This year, it hasn’t hired any lifeguards yet, and the open positions have received “only a couple applicants.”

The pool would normally open the last weekend of June, which Miller said might not be possible this year. The department is “making a hard push” for staffing, he said, and hopes to open around July 1. The pool may open with limited hours if it does not reach its typical staffing levels.

“Having the Nonotuck pool is a huge asset for our community,” Miller said, “so we’re going to do everything we can to try to get lifeguards and try to get the pool open.”

Northampton

Northampton Parks and Recreation has confronted this issue on a smaller scale, said Aquatics Supervisor Jim Miller.

The city currently employs four lifeguards at Musante Beach and five at the pool at John F. Kennedy Middle School. Under normal circumstances, each location would have one or two more lifeguards.

The pool and Musante Beach can still open at this level of staffing, Miller said, but if the department cannot recruit more lifeguards, the locations will cut down their hours of operation.

Some lifeguards did have their certifications expire during the pandemic, Miller said, and couldn’t renew their qualifications because of pandemic measures shutting down classes. In the interim, Miller theorizes that these people may have found other jobs and no longer need the lifeguard position.

“A lot of people’s lifeguard status canceled out,” he said, “and I guess they didn’t want to go back and do the testing again.”

Others who apply for the job don’t have their certification yet, Miller said, and the department cannot hire them until they complete a training and certification program. The city plans to resume lifeguarding classes this summer, but only a couple of people have signed up so far, according to Miller. Fees for the program range from $210 to $310, depending on the level of certification and residency status.

Lifeguarding is not the only job where employers are scrambling to find applicants. Nationwide, the retail and the service industries, in particular, are having difficulty attracting applicants, which some have speculated stems from the low pay rates and lack of benefits that often come with these positions, or the remaining risk of COVID-19 exposure.

At Musante Beach or the JFK pool, lifeguards make $15.09 per hour. A beach assistant lifeguard makes $15.85, while a beachhead lifeguard makes $16.80. A seasonal lifeguard in Easthampton is paid $13.50 to $14.50 an hour, according to a city job posting.

Staying afloat

Some local swim spots are bucking the trend: The Greater Holyoke YMCA managed to fully staff its three pools for the summer, though not without some added effort, according to Executive Director Kathy Viens.

“We have been able to encourage people already active here at the Y,” Viens said, “including some of the people who are on our swim team or swim here on a regular basis. We’ve been trying to identify people and put them through our lifeguard program.”

While drawing from the existing membership, aquatics staff also have made an effort to reach out to candidates who don’t typically fill the roles. The position usually attracts high school and college students, according to Viens, and skews toward teenagers during the summer. But the role can also appeal to older adults who hadn’t previously considered lifeguarding.

“We’ve started to look at adults and some people whose children have gotten older, so they’re looking for a part-time position,” Viens said. “Some might be retirees … We’ve been trying to get a bit creative on trying to find the right niche.”

The Y also offers in-house certification courses, which has helped to make the training easily accessible for members. For younger lifeguards in particular, the Y also makes a push to help develop professional and leadership skills, according to Viens.

Lifeguards start at $13.50 per hour and have pay increases with seniority, Viens said, and the Y will help with expenses for the training courses.

The Greater Holyoke YMCA has three pools — two indoors at Holyoke that are staffed throughout the year, and an outdoor pool in South Hadley that is only open during the summer. The Y currently employs around 20 lifeguards, which Viens said is just enough to staff the three pools.

“Even at this point, we have enough,” she said, “but we don’t have extras.”

The Y will continue its outreach in an attempt to hire more lifeguards, Viens added.

The Amherst Parks and Recreation Department also staffed and prepared to fully open the Mill River and War Memorial pools later this month, according to assistant Town Manager David Ziomek. The town is having difficulty filling some other recreation positions, such as conservation trail crews, but lifeguarding seems to be bolstered by students from area colleges, Ziomek said.

“We did early recruiting, and we certainly have a long relationship with the college,” he said, “which I think makes a big difference. A lot of our lifeguards work at the pools in the five college area,” and can complete their training on campus. Ziomek did not have a figure for lifeguard pay rates in Amherst.

The town also did not need as many lifeguards as usual this year due to reduced swim classes, according to Ziomek. The town only will offer two classes, compared to the usual six to eight, because it did not have time to prepare for more with the timing of Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement that the state of emergency will end on June 15.

The Daughters of the American Revolution State Forest in Goshen, which includes the Highland Lakes, has also prepared to fully open this month. All lifeguard positions have been filled for the season, according to a spokesperson, and swimming areas will open to the public seven days a week starting on June 19.

More information on lifeguarding classes is available at www.northamptonma.gov/830/Lifeguarding-Class.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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