New York City — and most of the country — has experienced a lifeguard shortage this summer. Photo: Nick Page

By Angelina Nelson

There’s a lifeguard shortage across the city that doesn’t bode well for beachgoers and those looking to cool off from the heat in the city’s pools. As a result, beaches have been forced to limit the space where people can swim and pools now have fewer programs and hours. (Last week, one man was arrested for an off-hours dip at Rockaway Beach. The time? Just before 7 p.m.) More pressure is being placed on current lifeguards to show up to work and pick up more hours to provide adequate coverage. 

Several factors have contributed to and exacerbated the problem. Lifeguards should be able to swim 50 yards in 35 seconds or less while maintaining proper form. Those who were lucky enough to be a part of a swim team growing up may not find this challenging. Cam Altmann, a 20-year-old lifeguard at an apartment complex on Long Island found that the test was easier for them because they had already been swimming for five years.

“Honestly, coming from a swimming background, because I swam for six years and all of my friends did too. It was a given that if you’re a swimmer you should become a lifeguard because it just makes sense,” Altmann says. 

This is not the case for all lifeguards. DeAndre Mullet-Soltren, 20, and a lifeguard for luxury residential buildings in New York City, trained on his own time to pass his certification. He did not have a swimming background. Mullet-Soltren used the Asser Levy Recreation Center’s indoor pool in the East Village to train. This pool is only a 15-minute walk from his apartment. However, not everyone has access to pools in their neighborhoods, which can make it hard for them to practice to become a lifeguard. 

The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation offers indoor pools at recreational centers throughout the city. The recreational centers also offer free memberships for those under the age of 18 and a $24 annual membership for those ages 18-24. A list of all the indoor pool locations can be found here. Outdoor pools are also available to use without purchasing a membership. Throughout the summer swim programs such as Senior Swim and Learn to Swim are offered at outdoor pools. But this summer, because of the shortage, no programs are being offered and pools are only open for general swim. 

Cost is another barrier for those looking to become a lifeguard. Depending on where you become certified, the price ranges from free to as high as $400. Mullet-Soltren had the opportunity to have his certification done for free through a lifeguard program at his high school in 2019. His lifeguarding certification included CPR and first-aid training. This program was offered through Henry Street Settlement and is no longer available to high school students. However, the YMCA offers free certifications and training throughout New York City.

“There are different variations to lifeguarding certifications. There’s shallow water, deep water and open water for beaches. It should be one flat price for everything you need. First aid and CPR for lifeguarding usually come in one certification,” Mullet-Soltren says.

Lifeguards have to take a test each year to maintain their certification and every two years for CPR. During the pandemic, many pools were closed, and finding a place to be recertified became a challenge for some. 

“Because of the restrictions on seeing other people, it was hard to even try to get recertified because most places were closed down,” Altmann says. “Suffolk had just reopened and I started going to in-person classes and that’s when they reopened the lifeguarding class. There weren’t that many kids in the class, it was like seven people. There wasn’t much contact anyway, in terms of Covid.”

Certain lifeguard jobs, such as ones in the city, do not require lifeguards to try out for the position beforehand. However, Jones Beach on Long Island has an intense try-out that potential candidates must attend and pass before being hired. 

This year, the process was a bit different because Jones Beach decided to hire many more lifeguards than usual. Normally, Jones Beach hires up to 40 lifeguards. This year, they hired double that amount. 

“A 30 to an 80 difference between the two years for Jones beach is unheard of. Most years they take 30 to 40. In some years, even less than that, because they’re very specific and selective of who they take, but they took every guard that made it to the last qualification test,” says Jacob Tanner, an 18-year-old lifeguard at Jones Beach. “That was the first time I think they’ve done that in years. So the lifeguard shortage is definitely making it easier to become a lifeguard.”

While it may be easier to become a lifeguard, current lifeguards have also received benefits from the shortage. Because of the demand for lifeguards, in some locations, lifeguards are now able to receive a higher pay rate. An example of this is Mullet-Soltren being able to quit his job with one company to go work with a different company and be paid more. He used to make $16 an hour with his old job and now makes $20 with the company that he currently works for. 

At Jones Beach, lifeguards are also able to receive higher pay because Governor Kathy Hochul increased pay for staff at public pools and beaches by 34%. Paige Levine, an 18-year-old lifeguard at Jones beach was able to benefit from the increased pay. 

“I believe my last year, or my fourth year when I was working for the beginning of the season, I was told by my supervisor that I was getting paid $16 an hour. And when we first got to Jones Beach during the training, they said it was $18, but then it actually got bumped up to $22.”

The shortage has also made it possible for lifeguards at Jones Beach to work overtime (OT) at other beaches. Lifeguards are sent emails about unfilled positions at nearby beaches. If they have the day off and are willing, they can go work for OT pay. 

“Without as many guards it makes it available for us to go to more positions in other beaches on days off to earn OT pay. Just this weekend, I got an email asking if anyone wanted to work OT at Sunken Meadow, and they said on Saturday, there were like six spots available. Then on Sunday, there were like three spots available,” says Tanner. 

The timing might be right for those who were considering becoming a lifeguard to take the plunge. Lifeguards must be at least 16 years of age to start working but can begin training beforehand. Higher pay, OT opportunities, and sign-on bonuses are being offered by the city. The American Red Cross offers classes for lifeguard training both in-person and online, starting at $35. 

“Go for it. You have to know how to swim and have patience because sometimes it gets really boring like there are days where it’s bad weather and there’s nothing to do for  seven, or eight hours straight,” Mullet-Soltren says. 

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