Despite a boom in 2023 lifeguard applications following the summer incentive pay program, city pools still remain closed due to a shortage of experienced pool managers.
A $3,000 incentive program brought a boom in lifeguard applications to the city of Phoenix this year, but not enough lifeguards and pool managers to open more than 18 of the city’s 29 pools this summer.
Phoenix fell about 200 employees short of the number it needed to open all city pools this summer. The city’s situation reflects a national trend, with the American Lifeguard Association estimating that roughly one third of the nation’s 309,000 public pools will face a lifeguard shortage this summer.
The limited opening is still an improvement over recent summers: All pools were closed during the pandemic summer of 2020, followed by eight in 2021 and 12 in 2022.
“We went from zero to eight to 12 to 18, so yes there has been steady improvement and I think that we’ve been very open about our hiring struggles and the need for lifeguards and I think the community has responded and kind of bounced back from the pandemic,” said Adam Waltz, a Phoenix Parks and Recreation spokesperson.
Still the effects of the pandemic are being felt in the staffing struggles that pools across the country are facing.
Adam Katchmarchi, executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, said the lifeguard shortage was an issue before the pandemic, but the nationwide public pool shutdown made it worse. It created a domino effect of reduced pool hours, fewer swim lessons and shortages of qualified pool managers to oversee lifeguard teams.
“The reality is when pools were closed a lot of these kids and adults moved on to other jobs so we really don’t have that historic legacy set of lifeguards, so pools have to continually fight that,” Katchmari said.
There is no shortage of people going through lifeguard training, Katchmari said. The problem lies with the recruitment and retention of experienced lifeguards who go on to become pool managers, a crucial position for keeping public pools open.
“If you don’t have a good aquatics manager that’s going to put necessary regulations and restrictions on the lifeguard staff, you could create a dangerous environment,” Katchmari said of the potential for improper pool staffing and lifeguard certification vetting.
Such is the case for Phoenix, despite a boom in 2023 lifeguard applications following the summer incentive pay program, city pools still remain closed due to a shortage of experienced pool managers.
“Although we have plenty of lifeguards, many don’t stick around long enough to become managers,” Waltz said.
Phoenix only has 15 certified pool managers this summer instead of the 29 it would need to open all 29 its public pools. Pool managers require a minimum of two to three years of lifeguarding experience.
“Making sure we keep those lifeguards, retaining them and hopefully having them become pool managers and assistant managers, that’s really an area of focus for us,” Waltz said.
Because of that shortfall, of the 18 pools that will be open this summer, only 15 will be open at any one time. Twelve pools will be open for June and July, while the other six will only be open for one of those months.
“The split was intended to spread coverage of open pools throughout Phoenix,” Waltz said.
Cielito, Harmon and Perry pools were open until last week, when staffers there transferred to Falcon, Pierce and University pools, where they will work through July 30.
Phoenix’s steady increase can be attributed to a $3,000 summer incentive pay program and city-wide training courses—including a shallow water lifeguard certification and a free junior guard training program—intended to mitigate the number of lifeguard applicants the city turns away each year.
Phoenix joined a number of cities across the U.S. last year, by offering a first-time $2,500 incentive to certified lifeguards ahead of the summer season. That was boosted to $3,000 this year, thanks to funding from the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department.
“Where I see communities being successful are communities that are really good at recruiting lifeguards,” Katchmari said, pointing to incentive pay programs like the one in Phoenix that make lifeguard wages competitive with other popular summer jobs, like retail and restaurants.
Phoenix pools open all summer are Coronado, Cortez, Deer Valley, El Prado, Encanto, Maryvale, Paradise Valley, Pecos, Roosevelt, Starlight, Sunnyslope and Washington. Waltz said a few pools will stay open on weekends from July 30 through Labor Day: Cortez, Encanto, Maryvale, Paradise Valley, Pecos, Roosevelt, Sunnyslope and Pierce pools.
All pools are closed on Fridays. Admission is free for children under 17, $3 for adults and $1 for seniors. To find pool hours and information about swimming lessons, go to phoenix.gov/parks/pools/find-a-pool.
Cronkite News reporter Evelin Ruelas contributed to this report.