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    Wednesday, April 17, 2024

    To attract lifeguards amid shortage, Conn. employers bump up pay but there’s more to problem

    Summer lifeguards have been in short supply since the pandemic, and Connecticut’s amusement parks, municipal pools and state beaches are busily recruiting this month to fill those jobs before the approaching season.

    Some of the state’s employers started putting out calls for applications as early as January, and online job-search sites are currently filled with postings covering all parts of the state.

    A notable change this year is that numerous towns have bumped up their starting pay offers, hoping to draw more candidates by paying above — or even significantly above — the $15.59 an hour minimum.

    Facing the same kind of shortage that plagued states and cities around the country, Connecticut in 2022 pushed up its starting lifeguard wage from $16 to $19. Last year, it added another dollar, meaning new lifeguards at the parks and ocean beaches under control of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection are paid $20 an hour.

    “Apply to work for the best lifeguarding job in the state,” DEEP says in its latest online recruitment posting. “Becoming a lifeguard for the state is unlike any job you’ll ever have, with high stakes and real world experience.”

    Lake Compounce two years ago bumped its entry-level lifeguard pay to $16 an hour and offered free training as another incentive, and now heavily promotes that new seasonal staff can make up to $18 an hour.

    Last year, East Hartford way paying $15.50 to fill positions at its five outdoor pools. Currently, the town has deployed recruitment billboards and is offering $16.19 to start and up to $17.52 for candidates with experience.

    The town accepts applicants as young as 15, but requires a current American Red Cross certification. For uncertified candidates, the town offers two training classes this spring.

    With heavy competition from Lake Compounce, the city of Bristol is paying $16.34 to attracts lifeguards for its public pools. Bristol didn’t feel the shortage begin in 2021 like many communities did, but acknowledges that the market has grown harder.

    “It didn’t hit us until 2022, but it did after that,” said Sarah Larson, deputy superintendent of parks and recreation.

    Bristol is considering new ways to attract candidate, including reimbursements for certification training, but hasn’t made any decisions.

    Based on online ads, rates vary across the state. Simsbury offers $16.59; Danbury, Windham and Fairfield pay $17.50; Tolland offers $18; Norwalk advertises $17 to $18.75, Greenwich offers $17.69; and Shelton advertises $17.25.

    In some communities, the challenge to fill lifeguard jobs is hampered by more than low wages.

    Hartford has suffered so many lifeguard shortages that last fall, a team of students from Trinity College worked with the parks and recreation commission to study what was going wrong and how to remedy it. Among their findings was that large, poor cities often were hurt by low wages — but also by more difficult working conditions.

    The reputation of Hartford pools being more difficult to manage than suburban pools is a factor, along with management issues ranging from lack of communication to a late hiring process, it said.

    Some lifeguards who were interviewed complained that supervisors were often absent from the work site, and that lifeguards were required to handle extra duties, the report said.

    “If there’s not enough people to staff the beach and have lifeguards, everyone there becomes like a bathhouse attendant and does maintenance like picks up trash, rakes the beach, signs people in, but there’s no guard on duty,” one guard said, according to the report.

    The report recommended hiring more support and security staff for the pools, compensating lifeguards for certification and recertification expenses, more heavily promoting swim teams and water sports as a way to expand the base of potential applicants, and establishing new applicant pipelines through afterschool programs like the Boys and Girls Club and nonprofits like Our Piece of the Pie.

    “Due to demographic, cultural, and economic shifts over the past decade, fewer young people are working in the summers, and competition for seasonal workers has intensified, making it difficult for strained city budgets to compete,” according to its report.

    Hartford starts lifeguards this year at $15.76, with a raise to $16.23 the following season.

    The report cautioned that addressing the shortage quickly is important because a shortage of lifeguards can lead to pools being closed and swim lessons being curtailed.

    “The issue will only get worse. Fewer residents learning how to swim means even smaller pools of lifeguard candidates in the future,” the report said.

    “Just one month of formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning in children by 88%,” it continued. “About 70% of African-American children and 60% of Latino children do not know how to swim – and people of color make up roughly 75% of Hartford’s population.

    Because of inequalities in access to recreation, “African American children are at a significantly higher risk of drowning,” it concluded.

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