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Chicago’s Lifeguard Shortage Fueled By Low Pay, Confusion, Lack Of Resources On South Side, Parents And Hopefuls Say

Parents and organizers say Chicago Park District's failure to support youth swimming programs and disorganization has led to the city's inability to recruit enough lifeguards during a nationwide shortage.

The Washington Park Aquatic Center sits empty of water and overgrown with weeds on the first day of summer, June 21, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — The Park District has been hampered by its own disorganization, lack of communication and other issues as it attempts to find lifeguards and open pools, parents and community leaders said.

The Park District recently pushed back its target date to open pools from June 24 to July 5, hoping more upfront cash, relaxed residency requirements and the extra time will get enough staff in place at the city’s 77 indoor and outdoor pools during a national lifeguard shortage.

Only 9 percent of summer lifeguard positions were filled as of last week, according to a Sun-Times report. And at least one lifeguard said they were informed Monday the beaches are still short-staffed, so people can’t be assigned to pools.

Despite the staffing problems, newly certified lifeguards were turned away from a Northerly Island registration event, waitlisted or not given the option to work at their neighborhood pool.

South Side coaches said the Park District has cut back on swim programs since the start of the pandemic and has not adequately maintained pools, limiting the pipeline for young lifeguards. Some also said the lifeguard sex abuse scandal and the concerns it created about Park District leaders eroded trust in the agency.

Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons said there’s still time to open pools this summer.

“All lifeguards who have successfully completed the hiring process have been assigned to one of the beaches,” Lemons said in an email Tuesday. “Once the district determines a plan for summer pool operations, we will reassign lifeguards to provide safe coverage at pools, as needed.”

Dezria Holmes, an official for USA Swimming, the Illinois High School Association and an advisory council member at Fernwood Park, has a daughter who graduated from the Park District lifeguard program at Northerly Island. She was assigned a post at a North Side beach 30 minutes from their home in Englewood, Holmes said.

Holmes said she was able to get her daughter transferred to closer Rainbow Beach only after “extra pushes” in emails and phone calls to Park District management.

“You have people of color who can work these pools,” Holmes said. “These kids have participated in junior lifeguard, swim for club teams and never want to get out of the water; why not pick them for their neighborhood pools? They’re already familiar with the expectations. But you don’t give them a chance.” 

Credit: Courtesy of Leslie Mclaurin
The line to fill out HR paperwork at a Park District lifeguard graduation ceremony at Northerly Island.

‘Don’t Be Telling Kids They Can Work At Pools If They Can’t’

Thomas Hart, 16, waited almost three hours to complete his HR paperwork after the Northerly Island graduation ceremony. But he stuck with it to get a lifeguarding job.

Hart reported for his first day of work Monday at the Broadway Armory, 5817 N. Broadway, and was assigned to Calumet Beach. He said other young hires and people from his training program didn’t show.

Fewer prospective lifeguards led to everyone at the Armory being assigned a preferred beach, with no assignments given to neighborhood pools, Hart said. 

“We had lost more people, so they had more spots open at different places,” Hart said. “They haven’t given any of us the pools because they haven’t filled the beaches yet.”

Parents and lifeguards said the onboarding process has remained unclear; some have given up and are looking for other summer jobs. At least one parent said her son had hoped to work at Foster Pool, but they’re now trying to find him a summer job elsewhere.

Leslie Mclaurin, Hart’s mother, said young people who chose other jobs this summer because of pool closures will have to complete 26.5 hours of training again if they want to become lifeguards next summer.

“They should have been more upfront. Don’t be telling kids they can work at pools if they can’t,” Mclaurin said. “They need to have the resources and staffing to allow kids to work at the pools in their own neighborhoods.” 

Hart said Park District staffers were friendlier at the Armory than they were on Northerly Island, but he hopes to be reassigned to Rainbow Beach, closer to his home.

“They’re trying to work better with people. That’s all I can say for right now,” Hart said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The Washington Park Aquatic Center sits empty of water and overgrown with weeds on the first day of summer, June 21, 2022.

The issue goes beyond hiccups with hiring, though, some said.

Yadira Casimiro, swim coach at Lindblom Math & Science Academy in Englewood, said fewer kids from her swim team applied to be lifeguards this summer.

Casimiro previously worked for the Park District and said the $600 signing bonus is not enough incentive for people since lifeguarding requires extended training and long hours — and only pays $15.88 hourly. Many of her swimmers “found better opportunities with less required training,” she said.

“In order for the Park District to retain lifeguards and bring more interest, they have to pay them better,” Casimiro said. “They’re offering the $600 incentive, but it’s a position that gets little to no benefits. And no one can live comfortably off that.” 

Neglected facilities in minority communities and cuts to swim programs have exacerbated the Park District’s lifeguard problem, Casimiro and Holmes said. After-school swim programs at public schools were shut down at the start of the pandemic, and no reopening date has been set, according to CPS’ website.

Reviving those programs and investing more in youth swimming can help the Park District create a steady stream of lifeguards, Casimiro said.

“My girls who swim are more capable of doing the job,” Casimiro said. “It’s just a matter of logistics.” 

Holmes said her daughter, a lifelong swimmer, was excited for her first lifeguard job — but has been frequently discouraged by a “lack of urgency” for Park District swim programs on the South Side.

With many South Side pools closed, there are “no quality pools here where we can competitively swim,” Holmes said. The pools that are open during the year lack equipment like diving blocks, timers, proper lighting and pool depth, Holmes said. The Fernwood club team must travel to Whitney Young on the Near West Side to practice, Holmes said.

“The park pools that are on the Black side of town are not as funded, not as kept as the other pools. And these are things you can see for yourself,” Holmes said. “If they invested more in Black communities, there’d be more kids who’d want to be lifeguards. But parents and swimmers get frustrated and leave. That’s an asset you’re losing.” 

Other issues have made it difficult to recruit lifeguards, Holmes said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The Washington Park Aquatic Center sits empty of water and overgrown with weeds on the first day of summer, June 21, 2022.

Parents on a Zoom call with Park District leaders several months ago were frustrated about a lack of communication from the district and wary about the abuse scandal, including the failure to report allegations that led Supt. Michael Kelly to resign, Holmes said.

“A lot of parents are still really afraid to let their children be lifeguards,” Holmes said. 

Lemons said providing children and families “the safest aquatics programming is paramount,” but the pandemic has made it difficult to return school pools to normal operation.

“Some unanticipated staffing shortages have resulted in intermittent pool closures without proper notice to our patrons,” Lemons said in an email. “The district hopes its current recruitment incentives, which include the option for seasonal guards to secure permanent employment with the district, will result in additional year-round staff to support year-round pool hours and programming.”

Lemons said the Park District held roundtables earlier this year with lifeguards about ways to improve work conditions. Swimming equipment was among the top concerns, Lemons said.

“Thus far, the district has performed restoration work on lifeguard stations and boats, purchased new uniforms and began ordering new equipment,” Lemons said. “Our goal is to continue to address these concerns and improve conditions for our workers and patrons.”

Holmes said she’s put two of her kids through the Park District junior lifeguard program, which has gotten more expensive over time as swimming resources have deteriorated. While the pandemic has hurt hiring, the chronic divestment in swim facilities is at the root of why pools may not open this summer, Holmes said.

“It’s sad you have all this talent and it’s overlooked and not conditioned,” Holmes said. “There’s a disconnection. Have you ever swam with us?” 

Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
The Douglass Park pool remains dry as the swimming season approaches.

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