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EDITORIAL

Lifeguard shortages — residents shouldn’t have to swim at their own risk

The closure of pools is more than an inconvenience: It’s a public safety hazard.

Dalton Barcus, a lifeguard at the Mirabella Pool in the North End, rests after swimming laps on June 25, the pool's opening day, with temperatures in the high 80s. Once again, the state is experiencing a shortage of lifeguards at pools and beaches.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

On a sizzling summer weekend, families in Massachusetts should be able to enjoy the pools and beaches that their tax dollars pay for. But once again this summer, pools across the state are closed because of staff shortages. In Boston, five city pools won’t open because the city doesn’t have enough lifeguards; four others are closed for construction. Worcester expects to limit hours amid trouble hiring lifeguards. Elsewhere in the state, beaches go unguarded because of the difficulty hiring enough workers.

Of all the problems facing municipalities and other employers, lifeguard shortages might seem like small potatoes. But the closures of pools are more than an inconvenience: They’re a public safety hazard. A shocking number of Massachusetts residents, many of them children, continue to drown every year. As of 2020, drowning was the leading cause of “unintentional injury death” among children in Massachusetts. If people don’t have a place to swim safely on a hot day, too many swim someplace unsafe instead — like an unguarded beach or pond.

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What’s especially frustrating is that lifeguard shortages have been a well-documented national problem for years. Operators of pools and beaches have had ample opportunity to address the shortage; they just haven’t. Nationally, the shortage is so dire that a third of pools are expected to be affected this year, according to the American Lifeguard Association.

One strategy would be to follow the state’s lead by raising pay. Last year, after a spate of drownings, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration raised lifeguard pay to $20 an hour in an effort to attract more applicants at state facilities, and boosted it to $21 an hour this year with bonuses of up to $1,000. Lifeguard pay in Worcester is $17.50 an hour, and in Boston pay ranges from $16 to $21 an hour.

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But even with higher wages, the structural challenge to hiring more workers will remain: Lifeguarding is a seasonal job that’s perfect for teens, but it requires weeks of training that few complete. And compared with other jobs available to young workers, it can be a high-stress assignment; one 17-year-old lifeguard in Worcester was stabbed last year for attempting to enforce pool rules.

Officials in Pawtucket, R.I., tried a response that might be worth emulating in Massachusetts: They brought in 15 local firefighters and seven police officers to work as lifeguards in order to keep a city pool open. As long as they receive their normal pay — and not the hourly wage geared to teenagers — it’s at least worth offering public safety workers in Boston and other municipalities the option to work at pools.

What cities and states shouldn’t do is simply try the same thing next year — put out job listings for lifeguards, bemoan how few applicants they receive, and lament that young workers just don’t want to lifeguard. It’s clear that the shortage isn’t going away without a sustained effort to raise wages and expand the lifeguarding workforce. Until municipalities and other employers take the problem more seriously, residents will continue to be shortchanged — and summer will remain more dangerous than it should be for kids across the Commonwealth.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.