ROOT — On a recent sunny summer afternoon, you’d expect to see the SC Johnson Community Aquatic Center, 2800 Ohio St., filled with enthusiasts having fun, swimming, wading, playing, laughing. Instead, all is quiet.
A sign taped to a locked front door says it all: “The Aquatic Center pool is CLOSED this weekend. We apologize for the shortage of national lifeguards.
For most of this summer, the facility, which is owned by Racine County and operated by the Racine Family YMCA, has been open in the mornings (6 a.m. to 9 a.m. or 9 a.m. to noon) s’ it is open at all. Aquatic Center users are asked to check its Facebook page for updates.
The center was built with a $6.5 million donation from family-owned SC Johnson. Opened in 2018, it has nearly 14,000 square feet of water space, including two pools, waterslides, water jets, and lounges.
Ahmad Qawi, president and CEO of the YMCA, does not like to see the locked doors of the aquatic center.
“Normally in the summer we would be crowded. Sometimes we had to consider limiting capacity to keep everyone safe,” he said. “But the shortage (of lifeguards) really affects everything.”
The aquatic center is fully staffed with 15 lifeguards, Qawi said. To ensure the safety of staff and guests – especially on hot summer days – guards rotate outside and inside.
Much of the YMCA’s seasonal lifeguard staff works part-time. This means that Aquatic Center staff are only available for a morning shift before leaving for other jobs later in the day. Said Qawi: “We can only be open when we have lifeguards.
But more help is on the way. Qawi said last Thursday that a group of seven new lifeguards had recently completed their training. Of this group, five are now fully certified and can start working. He added that the additional lifeguards will be full-time and assigned to the Aquatic Center for afternoon and evening sessions.
The shortage of lifeguards is not new
Although reported shortages of lifeguards made headlines across the country in 2022, lifeguards have been in short supply for some time now.
“I’ve been here for 17 years, and we’ve always had a shortage of what (the number of lifeguards) we would like to have,” Qawi said. In addition to the Aquatic Center, which is open during the summer months, YMCA lifeguards work at the Sealed Air Branch indoor pools, which are open daily year-round.
The American Red Cross trains about 300,000 lifeguards nationwide each year through its lifeguard certification program, said Justin Kern, director of communications at the American Red Cross of Wisconsin. His organization trains lifeguards for cities and other organizations.
Prospective lifeguards must be at least 15 years old, complete 25 hours of training and pass an exam. Red Cross lifeguard certification is valid for two years before renewal. Certification training fees are around $75 to $110. Information about the Red Cross Lifeguard Certification Program can be found at: redcross.org/take-a-class.
“Even before COVID, there was a drop in people signing up to be lifeguards,” Kern said. “It’s become a chronic problem now.”
Kern cites pay rates, limited seasonal hours and generational shifts as factors driving a smaller overall pool of lifeguards.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, it was just one thing that a lot of kids did in the summer – watchdog or work in an ice cream shop,” he said. “But the secondary hustle and bustle for young people is more varied now. You have food delivery, online posts, all sorts of things. We just see fewer and fewer applicants from that pool of people.
Experienced lifeguards are in demand and can command a salary of $15 to $20 (per hour), Kern added.
The Red Cross is tackling the supply of lifeguards by offering blended training that combines online and personal instruction. He also proposed adding a year to the two-year certifications lifeguards earned in the pandemic-hit summers of 2020 and 2021.
Remuneration, competition are factors
The overall labor shortage has been a struggle, Qawi said.
“I don’t know what COVID has done. I know you see job postings on the streets everywhere you go. It just made staffing a challenge,” he said.
The Racine Family YMCA offers a starting wage of $10 an hour for lifeguards and offers in-house certification training. Qawi acknowledges that the pay rate is not as competitive as he would like. The organization of 200 employees is reviewing its entire salary structure.
The local Y also competes for seasonal summer lifeguards with several swimming facilities in eastern Racine County, including Racine Town Beaches, the Racine Unified School District Aquatic Center and country Meadowbrook and Racine clubs.
Qawi added that the Y has used the Racine County Employment Awareness Portal to help recruit lifeguard candidates.
The City of Racine adopted a $15 hourly minimum wage for all employees, including part-time and seasonal workers, in October 2021. The Racine County minimum wage of $15 per hour for part-time employees full was enacted in March of this year.
In contrast, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour; its last modification dates from 2009.
Bathing safety is key
Citing an average of 4,000 drowning deaths in the United States each year, the Red Cross is stepping up swimming safety skills training through local public schools.
For example, Kern said the Red Cross worked with the YMCA of Kenosha to provide a six-week water and swimming safety course at Curtis Strange Elementary School in that city.
“We’ve found that taking a holistic approach is very effective,” he said.
The American Red Cross offers a free swim safety app called Swim with tips for the whole family. It is available on most devices’ online app store, by texting SWIM to 90999 or at redcross.org/apps.
Qawi hopes more teens interested in swimming will take lifeguard certification training.
“It’s really great work for high school students,” he said. “It gives you important skills that you can use for the rest of your life.”
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