A lonely lifeguard chair at the 20th Street Gym watched over an empty pool Thursday, indicative of a lifeguard shortage which is squeezing the breath from many front range facilities at the start of summer. From Aurora to Denver to Boulder and Englewood, pools are closing, postponing opening day or staggering their hours because there aren’t enough lifeguards to staff them. “With the economy and pandemic recovery people aren’t coming out in the same amounts for jobs,” said Denver City and County Recreation Director Leslie Pickard.
She said front range pools recovering, but the road back from COVID has been an uphill push, “200,000 people use Denver’s pools on average during the summer. We’ve been recruiting all year long. ”
Nationally, as many as half of the country’s 309,000 pools are either shuttering or adjusting swim times, according to the National Lifeguard Association’s BJ Fisher. “This is a crisis. It’s the worst we’ve ever seen it, ”said Fisher, who says the biggest risk to having no lifeguards is the possibility that more kids will drown this summer, especially on unstaffed beaches. “Parents will need to keep a closer eye on their children.”
In Colorado, lifeguards must be at least 15 years old and must have CPR and First Aid training to qualify. According to its website, the American Aquatics and Safety Training takes 26.5 hours to complete.
The Connecting Colorado job search website shows there are open lifeguard positions all over the state from Thornton to Delta to Pueblo and Crested Butte offering from 14.35 to around $ 18.00 per hour.
Some Colorado parks and rec departments are so desperate to staff their pools in time for the summer swelter, they are hiring on the spot, starting pay at just over $ 15 per hour plus incentives.
Aurora pays $ 16 per hour to start and is one of the few front range parks and rec departments with enough lifeguard staff to open its outdoor pools this weekend. “We really had to sweeten the pot to recruit. Not only do we pay for Red Cross certification, we’re offering free use of our rec center and advancement opportunities, ”said Erin Pulliam, Superintendent of Marketing for Aurora’s Parks and Rec Open Space Department.
Aurora is scrambling, as is Boulder, Longmont, Denver and Englewood, where Aquatics Manager Brad Anderson has hired only 55 of the 125 lifeguards he needs to operate Pirate’s Cove.
Instead of opening for the season this weekend, Anderson was forced to postpone Pirate’s Cove’s summer start to June 4. “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Anderson said. “We should have had kids here this weekend laughing and screaming and splashing around. This is the worst I’ve seen it in 38 years. ”
Anderson is offering $ 15 per hour and $ 1 lunches from the concession stand to anyone who goes through the required Red Cross training. “I am perplexed, but I think part of the reason kids don’t want to be lifeguards is because they think they have to be Missy Franklin or Michael Phelps to do it,” said Anderson. “But you don’t have to be a swim team kid!”
The NLA’s Fisher said that the 1990’s “Baywatch Effect,” has waned. “In the nineties, everyone wanted to be the tan lifeguard with the great body running on the beach. We need another show like that to make being a lifeguard cool again, ”said Fisher.
To show how awesome it is to be a lifeguard, the Longmont parks and recreation department is actively reeling in the teens by speaking their language with lifeguard testimonials via TicToc videos. “We are also interviewing on-the-sport at job fairs,” said Marketing and Communications Manager Erica Illingworth.
In Aurora, life-sized cut-outs of actual staff lifeguards looking strong and refreshed greet teenagers in the rec centers where QRC codes are embedded into floor entrances
Months ago, the City of Boulder knew it would be a lean year, so parks and rec managers brain stormed marketing ideas to entice future lifesavers. “We thought ‘Okay, what would be a creative way to breakthrough for kids?” said Jonathan Thornton, Communication Program Manager. They created promotional signs which show a boy and a girl in swimsuits and flowing capes with the message: “Super Heroes Wanted.”
At the eleventh hour of the summer season, they only have 60% of the lifeguard staff they need, so Boulder is being forced to close Spruce Pool. Scott Carpenter Park pool will remain open.
Longmont is reducing its outdoor pool and beach front hours. Kanemoto and Roosevelt Activity Pools will be closed for the summer season for the third year in a row.
Denver has had to triage its pools, closing six of its indoor facilities on June 4 in order to keep 24 outdoor pools open. Denver Parks and Rec pays entry-level lifeguards $ 15.87 with opportunities for time-and-a-half pay for overtime.
Recreation managers are opening their minds as they sort out the lifeguard shortage, branching out from the narrow focus of the traditional teen or college summer worker to retirees who may be looking for something to do. Anderson of Pirate’s Cove said teenagers are distracted, college kids are choosing career internships over a whistle and a summer tan. “I like adults. They’re reliable, ”said Anderson.