As the unofficial beginning of summer arrives this Memorial Day weekend, officials in Boston and across the state are again facing stiff competition to hire enough lifeguards to keep public swimming pools and beach areas open and safe throughout the season.
Recruiting lifeguards has become more difficult in recent years for several reasons, officials say. Pandemic restrictions on in-person gatherings limited the number of candidates who were able to train and become or remain certified as lifeguards, resulting in a smaller pool of qualified lifeguards working now.
In addition, more young people are seeking internships rather than summer jobs, and the labor shortage has made wages for other seasonal work increasingly competitive, officials said. The shortages mean not only that many pools simply can’t open, but also that swimming in many places is less safe.
In an effort to bring in more candidates, city and state officials have increased wages for lifeguards, and the state is offering bonuses for hiring and retention, officials said.
“We find there is a lot of competition … people are going for the best offer,” said Marta Rivera, commissioner of the Boston Centers for Youth & Families. “Many of the organizations that need lifeguards are upping the ante with more incentives and higher pay.”
Recent summers have brought a series of tragic deaths in Massachusetts waters, including 18 drownings statewide just in May 2021, the Globe reported, as families eagerly returned to beaches, ponds, and pools after more than a year of pandemic isolation.
The deaths — more than the previous three Mays combined — included two young cousins who drowned as they skipped stones in a Brockton lake and a teenage boy who died after jumping from a rope swing into a Framingham pond. The following month, Worcester police Officer Enmanuel “Manny” Familia and a 14-year-old boy drowned in a pond in the city’s largest park as Familia tried to rescue the teen.
On average, more than 50 people drowned in Massachusetts each year from 2017 to 2021, according to the Registry of Vital Records and Statistics. In 2021, the most recent year for which data were available, 58 people drowned, including two children under 5.
A Boston Globe review of 2021 water deaths and close calls found no lifeguards were present in nearly every instance.
Data for 2022 are not yet available, but last summer also saw multiple deaths, including a 21-year-old Lynn man who died after he was pulled from waters in the Breakheart Reservation, a 56-year-old Chelsea man who drowned in Upper Mystic Lake in Winchester, and a person pulled from the water at Pavilion Beach in Ipswich — all in July.
For lifeguards, the work can be tough, and it demands a high level of commitment, officials said.
“It’s not the easy summer day at the beach that many might think it is,” said Shawn DeRosa, director of pool and waterfront safety for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. “There’s quite a lot of training … and not everyone is up to that challenge.”
With demand so high for qualified candidates, applicants can afford to be choosy.
Both the city and the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation offer lifeguards a starting rate of $22 per hour, officials said, and free lifeguard training for applicants.
This year, the Boston Centers for Youth & Families rolled out a slew of other inducements, including flexible schedules and newly created part-time, year-round lifeguard positions, plus opportunities for career advancement.
The community centers also offer lifeguard training in both English and Spanish to expand the potential range of applicants.
Last year, about half of Boston’s 18 public swimming pools were closed all summer due to a combination of staffing shortages, facility issues, and construction projects, officials said. Some of those pools, such as the one on Mildred Avenue in Mattapan, later reopened. Mayor Michelle Wu announced in March that the city will reopen three more pools in Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and Mattapan that were closed.
But the number of open pools will remain about the same, in part because a Dorchester pool and a Chinatown pool are closed due to unrelated renovations in the Boston Public Schools that house them, Rivera said. BCYF currently has six pools open and will have 10 open by summer, she said.
City kids, particularly children of color, have historically had limited access to swimming lessons and to safe bodies of water. That puts them at greater risk of drowning, which can carry on for generations, as children unfamiliar with the water grow up to be parents uncomfortable letting their children swim, according to Richard Mojica, pool manager at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston’s Berkshire Partners Blue Hill Club in Dorchester.
“It bothers me sometimes, because some parents don’t want their kids to learn how to swim because they’re so afraid of the water,” said Mojica, who is also the head coach of co-ed swimming at Boston Latin Academy.
Marissa Malone, executive assistant aquatics director at the Blue Hill Club, is a Boston native and was “one of those children in the inner city that didn’t have as many opportunities as everybody else,” she said.
But as a child, Malone learned to swim at the club where she now teaches water safety. Recently, she worked with a group of girls around 7 or 8 years old who came into the club during open pool hours but were too frightened to remove their life jackets. After she helped them become more comfortable, “they were able to take off the life jackets, and it felt great,” she said.
Boston has budgeted for 71 full-time and part-time year-round lifeguards, and so far has about 37 on staff, but 50 are needed to open all its pools, according to Rivera. Her goal is to fill the department’s remaining lifeguard vacancies; the city also is budgeting for 68 seasonal staff to work this summer. Having the additional staff would help ensure pools remain open during the summer and allow BCYF to offer more services, such as swim classes, she said.
The state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation manages 32 waterfronts and beaches, two dozen pools, and a pair of wading pools. DCR is also offering incentives for prospective lifeguards: up to $1,000 in bonuses to applicants who work the entire summer season, with another $250 for early hires, said DeRosa.
“DCR was forward thinking in terms of boosting the lifeguard salary last year, and offering some sign-on and retention bonuses,” DeRosa said.
The state is on track to hire 700 lifeguards to serve seven days a week, according to officials. Beginning May 27, the state had lifeguard services available on weekends at 13 beaches and waterfronts.
That will expand to all 32 beaches and waterfronts starting June 17, and lifeguards will be on duty seven days a week. The agency’s 24 pools and two wading pools will open June 24, and will have guards seven days a week.
Globe correspondent Kate Armanini contributed to this report.