From the shores of Barnstable to poolsides in Roxbury, Brookline, and Cambridge, lifeguard chairs have become increasingly hard to fill this summer.
The town of Barnstable is nearly two dozen lifeguards short in its efforts to hire 105 guards for its beaches and ponds for the busy tourist season, despite recruitment efforts through schools, swim teams, a youth job fair, and offers of referral bonuses, said Patti Machado, the Cape Cod town’s recreation director.
“It’s been a challenge,” Machado said.
The American Lifeguard Association predicts “lots of unguarded beachfronts and lots of closed pools” around the country, with fears of a surge in summertime drownings, said B.J. Fisher, the association’s director of health and safety.
It’s not a new problem, but it has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which forced pools to close and halted certification (and recertification) courses last year. Once courses resumed, social distancing requirements kept class sizes small.
Adding to the problem, Fisher said, is a backlog in processing temporary work visas for seasonal workers and foreign exchange students.
“It’s been a snowball effect,” Fisher said. “We lost an entire year.”
The shortage is evenly distributed between pools and beaches. Traditionally there were two lifeguards per tower at beaches, Fisher said. That decreased to one about a decade ago. Then towers were spaced farther and farther apart with ATV patrols in between.
“Now some communities are saying they can’t even staff the chairs at all,” Fisher said. “It’s a dwindling effect over years.”
Within the national aquatic network, Machado said, “that’s all we’re talking about.”
“It’s the best job you’ll ever have, but nobody knows it until they’ve done it,” she said. “I grew up as a lifeguard. It is the best job. It’s where I met my husband, how’s that?”
The YMCA, one of the nation’s largest operators of pools, camps, and waterfronts, is feeling the pinch, too, said Lindsay Mondick, YMCA director of innovative priorities.
“We definitely are not immune to the shortage,” Mondick said Thursday. “Across the country, our YMCA staffs are looking for lifeguards.”
Mandatory certification is a costly and rigorous 30-hour process — which includes first aid and CPR — that cannot be rushed. To qualify, candidates also have to pass a swim test, which is especially strenuous for ocean guards. Certification is valid for two years.
“You have to take CPR and first aid, on top of rescue techniques and surveillance and vigilance training,” Mondick said. “The time it takes to onboard a lifeguard doesn’t start when they walk in the door.”
Aside from exacerbating a shortage of lifeguards, the pandemic also caused swimming lessons to be put off.
“Every YMCA across the country, our YMCA pools, all of them did close at some point during COVID-19,” Mondick said. “So we know that swimming lessons were postponed for many families.”
Drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4, Mondick said, and the second-leading cause for children ages 5 to 14.
“As we go into summer, as children have even more access to water, I think the message is just for parents and those who supervise children to be extra vigilant about supervision this year.”
The American Red Cross, which certifies a majority of the nation’s lifeguards, credentialed 51,811 between January and April of 2020, compared with 98,570 during the same period the year before. The numbers increased to 83,685 for the January to April time span this year, but they are still lagging.
The lack of guards means not only short-staffed pool decks, forced pool closures, and unguarded beaches, it also means fewer lap swim hours and water aerobics offering. It also means fewer pool parties.
A quick glance at online job postings in the Boston area reflects the wide-ranging need for lifeguards beyond just community pools, aquatic centers, recreation departments, and beach fronts.
Hotel chains, gyms, condo associations, summer camps, resorts, waterparks, Cambridge YMCA, Boys and Girls Club of Boston, the Salvation Army, the city of Boston, and the town of Brookline are all in search of lifeguards.
Like many other employers, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation will pay certification fees for new hires. Others offer signing bonuses or, like Barnstable, referral bonuses as incentives.
Newport, R.I., which is struggling to hire enough lifeguards, will reimburse first aid and CPR training fees and pay $20 an hour.
Wages generally aren’t great or commensurate with the degree of responsibility the job requires, Fisher said, except in cities like San Diego and Los Angeles where “they’re treating lifeguards like firefighters” with annual pay — in the $40,000 range — and benefits in proportion to the risk and duties.
Across the country, starting pay for pool lifeguards generally begins around $10 to $14 an hour, Fisher said, but is now up 30 to 40 percent.
The Cape Cod National Seashore is one of the few stretches of coastline not facing a lifeguard shortage this summer, which should help ease fears among beachgoers about any lapse in a key line of defense against shark attacks.
“Lifeguards will be stationed at all six seashore beaches, a change from the four beaches with lifeguards last summer,” said Brian Carlstrom, a spokesman for the National Seashore. The seashore sidestepped being short staffed by providing housing to its lifeguards, Carlstrom said.
The town of Dennis also has managed to fill its summer ranks.
“Our beach coordinator has been working tirelessly since just after Christmas on getting seasonal beach staff positions filled for this upcoming summer,” said Elizabeth Sullivan, town administrator.
Likewise, the town of Sandwich will have a full complement thanks to a junior lifeguard program created three years ago to “train and certify our own,” said recreation director Guy Boucher. “In the past, we definitely struggled,” Boucher said.
Sandwich pays $17 and hour and also provides housing if lifeguards need it. “That’s huge on the Cape,” where rent is pricey, Boucher said.