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Lifeguard shortage means unguarded beaches in Oregon and long lines for swim lessons

Portland Parks and Rec. Dept.
Kids enjoy one of Portland's outdoor pools. This year, long lines are expected for swim lessons.

There’s a shortage of lifeguards this summer.

In Portland that means aquatic programs will only be offering swim lessons in outdoor pools, and there will be long waiting lists.

The American Lifeguard Association estimates one-third of the nation’s beaches and pools are affected. That’s tens of thousands of closed pools across the country.

There are several reasons for the shortage. The main one is that public pools were closed during the pandemic. That left lifeguards searching for other jobs.

Now pools are opening again, cities are having to rebuild summer staff. In Portland, the aquatics department had to find 750 staff from scratch. So far, they’ve retained 315, or about 42% of what they need.

“Compared to pre-pandemic, our indoor pools are probably running at about 25 percent,” said Portland Aquatics Director Andy Amato.

Another reason for the lifeguard shortage is the historically low unemployment rate. In Oregon it’s 3.7%. That means there is stiff competition for new workers.

For example, Portland’s local transit company TriMet is offering $17 an hour for drivers, plus a $7,000 signing bonus. Lifeguards in Portland start at about $15.

Portland Parks and Rec spokesperson Mark Ross said kids will likely miss out this summer, especially those in low-income families for whom the pool is a retreat.

“The splashing and the joyful cries, and the wonderful feeling of drowsy fatigue and getting some snacks after splashing around, that’s what we’re here to provide,” said Ross.

Portland’s seven outdoor pools will open Wednesday, June 22nd.

A lifeguard shortage means there's going to be long lines for swim lessons at Portland's public pools and elsewhere.
Portland Parks and Rec. Dept. /
A lifeguard shortage means there's going to be long lines for swim lessons at Portland's public pools and elsewhere.

“We greatly appreciate Portlanders’ patience as the parks bureau continues to recruit, hire, and train the valuable teammates who make PP&R’s services possible,” Commissioner Carmen Rubio said.

“If you or someone you know is interested in helping kids learn to swim, while earning good wages with a flexible schedule, please go to the PP&R website to learn about and apply for available positions,” she said. “If we can recruit, hire, and train more lifeguards soon, then PP&R can hopefully expand swim lesson opportunities throughout the summer.”

The lifeguard shortage is being felt across Oregon and the country.

“We’re still hiring, and continue to be in big need of lifeguards and swim instructors,” said Julie Brown with Bend Parks and Recreation Department. “The staffing shortage impacts the number of hours we have the pools open for operations.”

Bend raised its wages to $17 per hour in March and has received 64 applications since.

The National Recreation and Parks Association estimates 88% of cities are not fully staffed for lifeguards this summer.
Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Kristian Foden-Vencil is a veteran journalist/producer working for Oregon Public Broadcasting. He started as a cub reporter for newspapers in London, England in 1988. Then in 1991 he moved to Oregon and started freelancing. His work has appeared in publications as varied as The Oregonian, the BBC, the Salem Statesman Journal, Willamette Week, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, NPR and the Voice of America. Kristian has won awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. He was embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Iraq in 2004 and now specializes in business, law, health and politics.