NORTHERLY ISLAND — Lennox Evans, 16, grew up swimming at Foster Pool in Auburn Gresham and wants to be a lifeguard there this summer.
But as city leaders plead for more staff at beaches and pools, Evans and other newly minted young lifeguards said they’ve had a tough time getting those jobs. A Chicago Park District hiring event Monday saw a long, chaotic line and would-be lifeguards being told to come back another time, parents and teens said.
A nationwide lifeguard shortage forced Chicago’s indoor pools to close last year and is continuing to plague parks across the United States. Park District officials are offering $500 cash bonuses for lifeguards to try to ensure beaches and pools can open.
About 130 young people seeking those jobs received their certification at a Monday graduation event at Northerly Island. They lined up to complete their paperwork and receive a job assignment — only to face long delays, disorganization and a lack of interest from organizers, some said.
Some hopefuls said they were told to come back a different day while school was in session, placed on a waitlist for beaches or told there may not be positions at their neighborhood pools.
Parents and teens said they are frustrated at the city’s mixed messaging.
“We answered the call. … The city put out, ‘Come be a lifeguard,’” parent Leslie Mclaurin said. “They gave the kids hope they could help and then snatched it away.”
Park District leaders addressed the kids at 5 p.m., telling them about the many career opportunities within the district. The excited teens then got into line to be onboarded, but the line moved slowly because it was “disorganized,” with people cutting and some not getting their desired assignment, Evans said.
Around 7:30 p.m., employees clocked out before all the young people had been onboarded, McIaurin and other parents and graduates said.
About 40 kids still in line were told by supervisors they’d have to come back to sign up Thursday or Saturday, parents said.
Some young people and their parents left. But Mclaurin, who took off work to bring her son to the graduation Monday, said she could not bring him on the other days.
One Park District employee stayed past her shift to single-handedly sign up kids like Evans who had stuck out the lines, Evans said.
Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons said all lifeguard candidates were able to fill out documents online, prior to the graduation; for those who didn’t, the agency had staff on hand to help and answer questions. But there were more candidates who needed help “than expected,” Lemons said in an emailed statement.
The lifeguard candidates who waited were told they could finish the process online or go to one of two other in-person events during the week, Lemons said.
Park District staff remained at the event to help candidates, and 76 of the 100 graduates have completed their onboarding process, an agency spokesperson said.
About 9:30 p.m., Evans was waitlisted for two South Side beaches and told he’d have to come back June 20 to see if Foster Pool would even open.
“We need lifeguards to watch over the kids, and it would be cool to work at Foster Pool, because it’s home,” Evans said. “But a lot of people didn’t get the parks they wanted.”
Genesis Craig, 16, said she “stayed in line at the same spot for hours” and dealt with employees that “had an attitude.” Craig is on the swim team at Lindblom and was excited to work with her friends at Rainbow Beach for her first summer job. Two hours after the graduation, she was placed on the wait list at Rainbow Beach and assigned to Calumet Beach, a more challenging commute on public transit from her home in West Pullman, she said.
“It should have been more organized. They knew it was going to be this many people and their parents,” Craig said. “Y’all are the ones with the academy; check how many people you have in the room.”
Groups of students who had done well in training were given higher priority in the line.
Craig and multiple parents said those groups were predominately white, and got their first choice of popular North and South side beaches.
“The people in front of us didn’t have to go through all this,” Craig said.
Evans’ mom, Terraye Mitchell-Evans, waited with her son and said he was among the last group of kids to leave.
“They were all little Brown and Black kids,” Mitchell-Evans said. “It was extremely frustrating, but I didn’t want to make a big fuss about it, because we’re supposed to be there celebrating them.”
Craig’s mom, Ayesha Ollie, said the graduation ceremony was a “proud moment” for her and her daughter, a lifelong swimmer. But she was concerned about how park staffers handled the hiring portion of the event, saying multiple employees ducked out, leaving one woman to check IDs and help kids fill out job paperwork for the first time.
Craig’s “still pretty excited to work; it’s her first job. But it was very unorganized, which is telling me that this is not something she’ll want to continue with,” Ollie said. “She might have problems reaching out to people when she’s in the job. They had no resolve for us.”
At a news conference Monday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city still needs to hire about 100 more lifeguards.
“If you want a summer job, not only will you get a really nice salary, but we’re gonna give you $500 in addition to that to be a lifeguard with the Chicago Park District. We need you,” Lightfoot said. “If you can swim, we can train you.”
Mclaurin said some kids left the lifeguard graduation “crying.”
“We brought you these lifeguards, and you’re turning them away,” Mclaurin said. “They put in all this work, you had this ceremony, and some of them dressed up like it’s a high school graduation.”
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