Blame COVID-19 for lifeguard shortages that limit pool hours

The pandemic has closed swimming pools, and therefore the courses lifeguards must take for certification

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The lifeguard shortage in British Columbia that limited access to at least two of Vancouver’s outdoor pools during last week’s heat wave will last through the summer, according to the organization that oversees lifeguard certification.

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Dale Miller, executive director of the British Columbia and Yukon branch of the Life Saving Society, said the shortage was caused by pool closures due to COVID-19. This meant that the courses that lifeguards had to be certified to work in swimming pools, beaches and water parks were suspended.

Although additional lifeguard courses have been added, he said, and some have waiting lists, it is probably too late to reinforce staff for this summer season as it takes about three to six months to complete. train and certify a lifeguard.

“The current demand is quite overwhelming,” he said of the training. Accelerated training “is the beginning of solving the problem but it takes time”.

Miller said high demand for existing lifeguards has driven salaries up in parts of North America, including Toronto.

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A lifeguard at Kits Pool, which had to limit access to its massive saltwater pool over the weekend due to a lack of lifeguards.
A lifeguard at Kits Pool, which had to limit access to its massive saltwater pool over the weekend due to a lack of lifeguards. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

In 2019, the company issued 5,188 national lifeguard certifications that would allow them to work in swimming pools, the main designation. That number more than halved in 2020, to 2,570 certifications, before climbing to 4,607 last year.

To complete all of the training to become a pool lifeguard takes about 100 hours, Miller said.

The Vancouver Park Board announced on Monday that no deposits would be allowed at the Kitsilano Pool from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., but anyone who had already reserved a swimming spot would be welcomed. Later that day, another notice posted on Twitter stated that no drop-ins would be available at the Second Beach Pool in Stanley Park either.

Kits Pool, the city’s only saltwater pool, reopened for the summer on Saturday after being damaged in a storm in January that also destroyed Jericho’s pier and parts of the Stanley Park seawall.

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The shortage of lifeguards has also led Surrey to post a sign on its website that reads “due to a shortage of lifeguards, swim instructors and aquafitness instructors, we can only offer a limited number of programs aquatic”.

The City of Richmond, however, hasn’t had to cut its aquatics schedule except for “a few minor operational adjustments here and there,” spokesperson Clay Adams said in an email.

“A key factor is that the city has continued to run lifeguard courses, which has allowed us to recruit and train staff once they have completed their training.”

In Vancouver, the park board is considering a pilot project to help people pay for expensive certification courses, a spokeswoman who did not want to be named said in an email. “We hope to launch the program soon with the overall goal of increasing access to training and employment opportunities before the end of this summer.”

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The park board hires lifeguards year-round, she said. He hired 152 lifeguards this year and said each pool requires seven to 14 lifeguards.

Lifeguards and swim instructors earn a starting wage of $28.24 an hour in Vancouver, she said.

Some former lifeguards, who need to recertify, are returning and the park board is “reviewing times for public swim sessions” due to the shortage.

“Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell if this (accessibility) will improve or not,” she said.

Lifeguard in action at New Brighton Park Pool as a shortage of lifeguards forced the closure of some swimming pools in Vancouver, British Columbia, August 1, 2022.
Lifeguard in action at New Brighton Park Pool as a shortage of lifeguards forced the closure of some swimming pools in Vancouver, British Columbia, August 1, 2022. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

The City of Toronto will raise wages for aquatic staff by an average of 17 per cent, after the aquatic workers’ union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 79, called for a wage review earlier this year.

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Some 2,000 existing employees will receive a pay raise while new hires for positions such as lifeguards, swim instructors and wading pool attendants will start at higher pay, the city said in a recent statement.

Waterfront lifeguards and swim instructors will get a 19% raise with a new wage of $21.19 an hour, up from $17.80 previously, he said.

He also said that despite a shortage of lifeguards, 90% of Toronto’s summer aquatic positions have been filled.

And Toronto continues to offer intensive weekend and weeklong aquatic leadership courses and officials are encouraging interested candidates to become certified.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a shortage of national lifeguards caused by the pandemic has also forced swimming pools across the country to limit hours, reduce programs or close altogether.

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The American Lifeguard Association says a third of swimming pools nationwide will be affected.

New York City has canceled public swim programs. Houston and Chicago did not open some of their public pools as planned.

“The shortage is real,” Motti Eliyahu, a lifeguard trainer, told the BBC.

He estimated that he had trained 1,300 lifeguards in the past four months, and he saw a higher demand than ever for these workers.

In Long Island, New York, Eliyahu said, swimming pools are in such dire need of lifeguards that they are engaging in bidding wars for their services. At the start of the summer, the typical salary for a lifeguard was $16 an hour. Now the pools are offering $20 an hour.

“It’s not just a New York thing. This is literally happening across the country right now,” he added.

— with files from Canadian Press, BBC


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