New York, NY – Mayor Eric Adams and the union that represents the city’s lifeguards have reached a deal that boosts their starting salary this year by almost 22-percent with a $1,000 retention bonus to be paid out in September. Last month, the city announced that “due to the national lifeguard shortage” it was canceling a wide array of programs including its Learn to Swim program.
The Gothamist reported the shortfall in personnel had “resulted in full or partial closures at pools and beaches” with just 778 lifeguards on the roster, “roughly half of pre-pandemic levels.” Last month, NPR reported the American Lifeguard Association was estimating that close to one-third of the nation’s municipal pools were either forced to rollback their hours of operation or close altogether.
Under the new temporary pay scale, lifeguards with DC 37’s Local 461 will see their starting pay bumped up by three dollars, from $16 per hour to $19.46, what the city had been paying lifeguards with three years on the job.
“The most important result of this agreement is that visitors to the city’s pools and beaches this summer will be safe and protected by professional lifeguards who are properly trained to handle any water emergency,” said Henry Garrido, executive director of District Council 37. “We thank Mayor Adams, Commissioner Campion and Commissioner Donoghue for listening to our concerns about the pressure of the national lifeguard shortage here at home. We will continue to work with the administration to recruit and retain the best candidates while protecting their collective bargaining rights.”
“Every New Yorker deserves to safely enjoy our city’s public pools and beaches this summer and my team has taken extraordinary measures to make that happen,” Adams said in a statement. “Today we reached a deal with the lifeguard union to address the immediate needs of our pools. We negotiated for the creation of a class of lifeguards who are restricted to mini pools and with this influx of mini pool guards we will be able to very quickly open all of our mini pools, an essential cooling center for young New Yorkers.”
To qualify for the retention bonus, lifeguards have to “work every week through the end of the summer season,” according to Adams.
A 2017 study by the USA Swimming Foundation reported that 79-percent of children from low-income households were at increased risk of drowning because they did not know how to swim. The analysis found that close to two-thirds of young African-Americans, and close to half of their Latino peers, had inadequate or non-existent swimming ability.
After the recent drowning deaths of two 13-year-olds in Jamaica Bay, in a media appearance Adams said he was concerned about the impact of the lifeguard shortage and the suspension of swimming classes. “We just saw, recently, the death of two young people. We’re going to examine that,” the mayor said. “I’m going to reach out to Parks and figure out, how can we continue the instruction. We have to have young people learn how to swim.”
“There aren’t enough kids taking swim lessons so the pool of candidates for lifeguards is shrinking,” the YMCA’s Mary O’Donoghue, told NY1, adding that low-pay and the cost of lifeguard certification were both disincentives.
According to NPR, the lifeguard shortage, which was acerbated by the pandemic, was made worse by President Trump’s crackdown on the issuing of J-1 student visas, which had further restricted the pool of college-aged students looking for temporary employment for the summer. Historically, thanks to that programs, thousands of foreign students helped keep the nation’s pools open.
President Biden has let the Trump restrictions lapse but the impacts are likely to linger.
“We will have a lifeguard shortage next year,” Bernard J. Fisher, with the American Lifeguard Association, told NPR. “It’s going to take years to get out of this because, you know, the Eastern Europeans situation is not good geographically for candidates to come.”
In December 2021, the Department of Investigation issued a 20-page report blasting the Department of Parks and Recreation for failing to properly oversee the city’s lifeguard program which it first flagged in the 1990s when it “found mismanagement, union interference, and deficient record keeping.”
“At the time, DOI recommended changes to the lifeguard supervisory structure, as well as additional recommendations that sought to improve DPR oversight of the Division.,” according to the December DOI report. “ However, these recommendations were not fully implemented. The current investigation reveals the continued need to address longstanding, persistent issues with the Lifeguard Division.”