Briefing

America's lifeguard shortage, explained

Why you'll want to keep an extra close eye on weaker swimmers this summer

There is a shortage of lifeguards in the United States, the American Lifeguard Association says, and it's affecting about a third of the country's public pools. Some facilities are having to stay closed this summer, while others are offering shorter hours and limited services. Here's everything you need to know:

What's causing the lifeguard shortage?

There are three main reasons. The first is that during the early stages of the pandemic, lifeguard certification classes were canceled, meaning new people weren't being trained and current lifeguards were unable to renew their certification. Second, a lot of lifeguards found new, higher-paying jobs in retail or the hospitality industry when pools were closed, and decided not to return to their previous positions.

Finally, in June 2020, former President Donald Trump banned foreign work visas like the J-1, saying it was a way to protect public health amid the pandemic. For the last two decades, many lifeguard positions in the United States have been filled by young people with J-1 visas, and Trump's move sent "shockwaves through that area," Bernard J. Fisher, director of health and safety for the American Lifeguard Association, told NPR, adding, "That was the straw in the camel's back that broke everything down." In April 2021, President Biden let the visa ban expire, but Fisher said it will still take time for pools to recover from the lifeguard shortage.

Is this shortage just affecting public pools?

No. There are also shortages at beaches, water parks, and organizations with pools, like YMCAs.

Has there ever been a lifeguard shortage in the United States before?

Yes, about 20 years ago. Fisher told NPR he attributes the shortage to a construction boom, when newly built condominium complexes and hotels needed lifeguards. Thousands of Eastern Europeans ended up coming to the U.S. on J-1 visas to fill these roles, a solution that Fisher said won't work as well this year due to the war in Ukraine. "We will have a lifeguard shortage next year," he said. "It's going to take years to get out of this because, you know, the Eastern European situation is not good geographically for candidates to come."

What are public pools doing about the lifeguard shortage?

Some of the solutions include limiting the hours a pool is open and asking swimming instructors to do double duty as lifeguards. Many are just going to stay shuttered for the summer; in Raleigh, North Carolina, half of the city's eight pools are closed, and the ones that are open have modified hours. To have enough lifeguards on staff to reach full capacity, Raleigh needs to hire at least 75 people, ABC 11 reports. The Raleigh City Council approved a pay increase for lifeguards from $9.25 an hour to $13 an hour, hoping this would get more people interested in applying.

Lifeguarding "isn't the easiest job in the world," Ken Hisler, assistant director of Raleigh Parks and Recreation, told ABC 11. "It may look easy at times, but in order to be a lifeguard you have to be able to swim 300 yards without stopping. You have to be able to tread water for two minutes with just your legs. And you need to be able to pull a 10-pound object from the bottom of the pool."

Lieneke Keihl, a lifeguard instructor trainer with the American Red Cross, said it's time to squash the stereotype of lifeguards just sitting in their chair, twirling a whistle. "What the public forgets is, first of all, there's quite a bit of training," Keihl told CNN. "There's a minimum of 20-some hours every two years. [And] if a lifeguard is doing their job correctly, they don't have to make any saves, because they catch it before it happens."

What steps can swimmers take to stay safe during this lifeguard shortage?

Now is the time to keep an even closer eye on kids and those who are not strong swimmers. Fisher told NPR families and groups should designate someone as the "water watcher," who will scan the pool and ensure that everyone in their party is safe. "So many times, groups think that someone else is watching, but in fact, no one's watching," Fisher said. "That's what we've been doing for years. And in particular this year, it's even more important." Young children and inexperienced swimmers should also wear life jackets that have been approved by the U.S. Coast Guard and swim with a buddy.

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