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Lifeguard shortage could leave nearly 20 of Austin's public pools closed this summer

Sarah Asch
Austin American-Statesman

When Joshua Adame arrived at Deep Eddy Municipal Pool on a recent Wednesday with his daughter Ramona, 3, he was disappointed to find the pool's shallow end closed and drained of water.

“The shallow side is where she likes to play. She likes to ease into it,” he said. “I had to hold her in the deep end. Which, you know, you only feel safe for so long doing that.”

The pool's shallow end is closed because of a significant lifeguard shortage that has hit the Austin Parks and Recreation Department — a shortage that is threatening to leave nearly 20 city pools closed this summer.

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Lifeguard Brad Sharboneau watches over swimmers at Deep Eddy Municipal Pool on Wednesday.

Swimmers face crowding when closures at one site concentrate people in fewer available pools, and some say they worry about what the summer will look like if the city can't solve the problem. 

'Challenging to find lifeguards'

In the summer of 2019, the city had about 850 lifeguards working at 34 public aquatic facilities, according to Aquatic Supervisor Aaron Levine.

This year, as the weather starts to heat up, the city only has 207 lifeguards ready to work — less than a third of the 750 Levine said it would take to be fully staffed. 

“We work in a city where we're fortunate enough that the citizens really love the pools,” Levine said. “There's a lot of support, but it is challenging to find lifeguards for them all.”

Lifeguards Will Powers and Brad Sharboneau walk down to Deep Eddy Municipal Pool in West Austin. The city recently raised the minimum pay for lifeguards from $15 an hour to $16 an hour, with small increases available depending on age and position.

Levine is actively recruiting lifeguards in the hope of expanding hours that have been cut back at Deep Eddy and Barton Springs Pool.

An additional 130 guards are in training right now, and the city is accepting applications from anyone 15 years or older who is interested in the job. Levine said the department often gets a rise in applicants in May and June as high school students look for summer jobs. However, he said this year the rise has been smaller and started later than in the past.

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Visitors enjoy Deep Eddy Municipal Pool. The Parks and Recreation Department is recruiting lifeguards in the hope of expanding hours that have been cut back at Deep Eddy and Barton Springs Pool.

Fewer pools, fewer hours

The department plans to expand hours and programming and open additional facilities when the summer pool season starts June 6. However, Levine said that will depend on staffing levels. Until the department can fill out its ranks, pools across the city will see reduced hours, while smaller facilities will be closed entirely. 

Until summer hours start in June, the department has five facilities open across the city. In addition to Deep Eddy’s shallow end closure, Barton Springs Pool is currently closed Mondays and Wednesdays in addition to its regular Thursday closure. Springwoods Pool in the Anderson Mill area, Big Stacy Pool in the Travis Heights area and Bartholomew Pool near the Mueller development are all operating with regular winter hours. 

Levine said he doesn’t have an estimated date for being able to fully operate Deep Eddy and Barton Springs, the city’s two spring-fed, nonchlorinated pools, but he said he is confident the city will be able to do so for the summer. The other open pools will expand to their summer hours and the city plans to open an additional 10 facilities starting June 6 — Garrison, Northwest, Balcones, Dick Nichols, Govalle, Montopolis, Shipe, Rosewood, Westenfield and Dove Springs pools. 

Opening those 15 facilities will be an increase from last summer, when the city only opened 12 pools and had 550 lifeguards by the end of the summer, Levine said. However, this still leaves 19 facilities shuttered for lack of staff. 

“We're working really hard just to get enough lifeguards to operate those first 15 pools. I think that was about 400 lifeguards that we need just to operate those 15 pools,” Levine said. “We've got a little bit of work to do before we get to June 6, but I think we're going to get there. I feel pretty confident we're going to be really close to opening those 15.”

Lifeguard Will Powers keeps an eye on things Wednesday at Deep Eddy Municipal Pool. Austin is facing a significant shortage of lifeguards, which could keep nearly 20 public pools closed this summer.

A list of all the pools can be found on the city's website, and their schedules will be updated as the department opens facilities and adds lifeguards. 

Levine said he is not sure what is causing the lifeguard shortage but thinks it is related to several trends. First, he said teenage employment is down since the early 2000s, having taken a particular hit after the 2008 recession. The pandemic also reduced pool use and access, and it limited the department’s traditional in-person lifeguard recruiting in schools and universities.

In the past two years, Levine said, the department increased spending on marketing and advertising, and it is now back to some in-person recruiting. Nothing seems to be working as well as before, he said. 

The department recently raised the minimum pay for lifeguards from $15 an hour to $16 an hour, with small increases available depending on age and position. The jobs also offer flexible hours, paid sick leave and training, Levine said. Lifeguards who want to work a full 40-hour week are able to do so but many work less than that, Levine said

The department is also offering a number of incentive bonuses this summer, including a $500 signing bonus to be paid midseason for lifeguards who are trained and ready to work by June 6. An additional $500 completion bonus is available to those who work 15 hours a week for the last week of the summer ending Aug. 13 and are available to work Aug. 14, the day before Austin public schools start in the fall. An additional advanced certification bonus of $250 is available for those who complete one of three special trainings. 

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Visitors check out the drained shallow end Deep Eddy Municipal Pool on Wednesday.  That area of the pool was closed because of a staffing shortage. The city wants a staff of 750 lifeguards this summer, and it currently has less than half of that.

'These pools mean a lot'

Some regular swimmers say they want the city to raise lifeguard pay even more to attract more staff. Gina James can frequently be found at Austin’s pools — she often swims laps at Barton Springs in the morning and then heads to Deep Eddy for part of the afternoon. James, 73, said she thinks the city doesn’t pay lifeguards enough.

“We all feel that the lifeguards should be paid more, and be given benefits,” she said. “I know a lot of people who are going elsewhere to be lifeguards.”

James said she thinks standards have fallen, with such issues cropping up as lifeguards not always knowing posted pool rules and the Deep Eddy lane lines being less clean than usual.

Parks and Recreation Department spokesperson Kanya Lyons said staff would investigate the condition of the lane lines, but she said Deep Eddy is drained and cleaned every other day and the department has not changed the cleaning process this year. 

James said she is passionate about advocating for better conditions at the pool.

“Mentally, the pools are soothing. I don't want to swim in chlorine and both Barton Springs and Deep Eddy (are natural). Because of COVID and because of living alone and moving here and not knowing anyone, they're just my mental go-to,” she said. “These pools mean a lot. They’re very important to me.”

Levine said the level of summer aquatic programming the city is able to offer will also depend on staffing, though he said the department plans to run its programs at open facilities this summer. Typically, these include swim lessons for all ages, a six-week swim team program for kids, junior lifeguarding and snorkeling practice at Barton Springs.

Austin’s pools have seen reduced attendance since before the pandemic, but the sites remain popular. In 2019, Barton Springs had 952,329 individual visits while all other city-run pools combined had 548,554 visits. In 2020, with reservations and strict attendance limits, those numbers dropped to 314,094 visits at Barton Springs and 64,563 at all other pools. Last year, the numbers started to rise again, with 428,862 visits at Barton Springs and 231,177 at the other pools combined. 

For now, with summer temperatures already heating up the city, Levine said one of the most helpful things people can do is spread the word to those who might be interested in signing up to be a lifeguard. 

"Tell your friends to come in and lifeguard, even a day or two a week,” he said. “Everybody thinks of lifeguarding as that teenage kind of summer employment. But over the years in order to maintain a staff of 750 lifeguards, we've really tried to focus on hiring second careers and retired citizens, things like that. People that come and swim in our facilities might have a day or two to give. Come down and apply.”

Anyone 15 and older who is looking for a summer job or extra income can get more information at www.lifeguardaustin.com.