Lifeguard shortages plague towns across the state

Quinn Pawlak, 16, of Wolcott lifeguards at Woodtick Recreation in Wolcott Monday, June 13. Steven Valenti Republican-American

By Katrina Scalise Republican-American

WATERBURY — Local recreation departments have been recovering from two years of lifeguard shortages and other pandemic-related issues, forcing some towns to close their facilities in past summers.

The shortage is nationwide, capable of affecting between one-third and a half of the 300,000 public swimming pools in the U.S., according to the American Lifeguard Association.

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which oversees state parks and their safety, is hoping to combat its staffing problems with new raises. Earlier this month, DEEP raised starting pay for lifeguards from $16 to $19 an hour. The program also offers paid training and free certifications, which often are barriers to those considering summer jobs as lifeguards.

Will Healey, DEEP’s director of communications, said the raises have helped.

“The pursuit of an increased salary was both a recognition of the incredibly important service lifeguards provide to our state, as well as where we are in our recruitment process,” he said. “Since we announced the increase, we’ve received several applications.”

Quinn Pawlak, 16, of Wolcott lifeguards at Woodtick Recreation in Wolcott Monday, June 13. Steven Valenti Republican-American

DEEP oversees eight state parks, with several positions available at Squantz Pond in New Fairfield, Indian Well in Shelton, Black Rock in Watertown and Burr Pond in Torrington.

“We encourage anyone interested to apply now,” Healey said.

The final deadline is Friday to apply at DEEP/State-Parks.

Raises also have helped town programs recover from the shortage. Last year, Waterbury lifted its lifeguard wage to $17.50 an hour.

“We increased it last year. The kids loved it, we’re getting kids coming from Watertown, Cheshire, Holy Cross, and we try to recruit a lot of inner-city kids,” Supervisor of Recreation Victor Cuevas said. “We usually grab who we can.”

The abundance of lifeguards has allowed the city to lend some of its staff to local programs, including learn-to-swim programs in collaboration with Waterbury Police Activity League and Greater Waterbury YMCA.

Naugatuck’s program also was able to evade the lifeguard shortage.

“Initially we had an issue, but now we have all of the lifeguards we need for the season,” Recreation Director Kim Eyre said. “We have the same lifeguards year after year. At NHS pool, we have six guards, four of whom are college students.”

Naugatuck pays its lifeguards $14.90 an hour, with supervisors making higher wages. The town hasn’t faced turnover issues, which affect most lifeguard programs. Eyre said the staff’s small size and annual pay increases have made the program stable.

Permanent looking signs surround the beach at Black Rock State Park in Watertown Sunday, June 12. Steven Valenti Republican-American

Other towns have been facing lifeguard recruiting issues with little success. In Falls Village, even with high wages, the town is having a hard time attracting lifeguards. The Recreation Commission held an emergency meeting earlier this month to discuss the lack of staff.

“Falls Village was lucky to be able to have the town pool open full-time last summer,” Recreation Director Emily Peterson said. “The staff consisted of all returning lifeguards with many years of experience at our pool. However, we knew going into the 2022 season that most of these guards would not be returning because they had graduated college, and that staffing could be an issue.

“The Recreation Commission was aware of the lifeguard shortage, and posted job openings for both full- and part-time lifeguards back in March. Since then, there have been few applicants, mainly those who were not yet certified but were planning on taking the course.”

Falls Village’s town pool pays its lifeguards a starting salary of $18 an hour, but the search continues for full- and part-time guards. The tentative pool opening date was set for June 20.