LINCOLN PARK — Lifeguards at North Avenue Beach said they’re feeling the pressures of understaffing as the city shifts some lifeguards elsewhere to open neighborhood pools.
The Park District opened 37 neighborhood pools Tuesday, but leaders are closing parts of North Avenue and Calumet beaches to make it possible. The agency hasn’t been able to hire enough lifeguards to staff all pools and beaches amid a national lifeguard shortage and problems with hiring.
North Avenue Beach will remove lifeguards at areas south of Fullerton Avenue, “reducing the swimming footprint,” Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons said last week.
One lifeguard in the area said he was told to tell the public last week that it was closed for swimming due to hazards like wiring and sharp rocks.
He and another full-time lifeguard at North Avenue Beach said they were not briefed on staffing changes and learned about it from the news. They asked to remain anonymous to protect their jobs.
They said staffing at North Avenue Beach has become a daily challenge and they are looking for better paying work.
“We’re overworked, and we have to be out on the water for a longer time,” he said. “There’s huge crowds coming to this beach.”
Beachgoers said they’ve noticed fewer lifeguards, bigger crowds and deteriorating conditions at North Avenue Beach.
The beach has seen large parties this summer where people have been shot and guns have been seized.
Agnes Pullukat brought her two young sons to North Avenue Beach last week and said it’s the first time she’s been told her kids could not swim in their usual spot by the rocks. The family lives in Lincoln Park and has been coming to the beach for eight years.
The now-closed section of the beach was “quieter for parents with small children,” while other areas “have become more crowded with loud music,” Pullukat said.
In a typical summer, the now-closed section would be full of families and children, Pullukat said. The rest of the beach has gotten messier, younger and more congested, she said.
“You can’t take your child to North Avenue Beach on the weekends anymore unless you want to deal with all the nonsense that’s going on at the busy part of the beach,” Pullukat said. “You can tell there’s less lifeguards now. They used to switch really often from the piers to the posts, and you don’t see that anymore.”
The lifeguards said the Park District’s staffing problems are mainly due to poor pay. New lifeguards make $15.88 hourly, which is not competitive with other jobs, a North Avenue Beach lifeguard said. And the Park District’s recent sign-on bonus of $600 is a “slap in the face,” she said.
The pay should be in the $20 range given the hours of training, required certifications, liability and life-risking work required of the position, she said.
“We feel undervalued,” she said. “It’s not worth it when we’re out here an hour-and-a-half at a time in the sun, then you have to go sprint to rescue someone. The quality of care is not going to be there because you’re overworked and tired. There’s more room for mistakes.”
Break times are being cut, and the Park District could not fulfill all orders this summer for basic equipment like whistles and uniforms, the lifeguard said.
Lemons said lifeguards at North Avenue Beach work in two-hour increments followed by 30-minute breaks for an eight-hour shift. The Park District updated its uniforms this year and outfitted every lifeguard, though the agency did not provide whistles this year because “most guards have a preferred product,” Lemons said.
The Park District held roundtables with lifeguards this year to discuss work conditions, and the agency will “continue to address these concerns, including wages,” Lemons said.
“Chicago lifeguards play a vital role in keeping our beaches and pools safe and enjoyable for the public,” Lemons said. “The Park District values these skilled and dedicated professionals and understands the demands of the job … .”
The lifeguards said staffers have been quitting.
“I’m desperate to get out,” she said. “The Park District is just so cheap.”
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