I hire lifeguards for YMCA pools in Florida. We're so short-staffed we've started recruiting patrons and closed down pools on the hottest days of the year.
- Mo Eaton is the regional aquatic director for First Coast YMCA in Jacksonville, Florida.
- She hires lifeguards and had to raise wages and turn to retirees to combat the lifeguard shortage.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Mo Eaton, the regional aquatic director for First Coast YMCA in Jacksonville, Florida. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I started working as a lifeguard with the YMCA in 2010. I gained my lifeguarding skills before that working for its camp and sports programs, but as soon as I was offered the role of regional aquatic director for First Coast YMCA in Jacksonville, I dove right in.
I currently supervise six indoor and outdoor swimming facilities — one is in Nassau County and five are in Duval County. We're truly at the center of the community. My youngest client is six months old and my oldest client, whom I taught only recently, is a 91-year-old who wanted to tick "learning how to swim" off her bucket list.
When you're a lifeguard you face many challenges, but we were faced with our largest one of all in March 2020. When COVID-19 hit, our pools were closed for up to three months and 50% of our lifeguards chose not to renew their licence, so our staffing numbers started to tumble. Some former lifeguards didn't feel comfortable working in an indoor public space, while others in the meantime had found new jobs. We've worked hard to find new lifeguards, but we still haven't reached pre-COVID-19 staffing levels.
Our whole team has taken steps to boost our numbers
To attract new lifeguards, First Coast YMCA agreed to cover the $150 certification fee for trainees if they work for us and offered to pay for their annual CPR and biannual licence renewals. We pay $12 an hour, but to help the lifeguards who were already working with us, their wages increased from $12 to $15 an hour.
The community has also stepped up to help us out and we've attracted a new group of lifeguards — retirees. I recently hired two older gentlemen who are retired military and in their 50s and 60s. They saw how we were short staffed and offered to help. One of the guys, who's in his mid-60s, used to work as a lifeguard when he was in high school, and now he's retrained 50 years later.
Yet even with this extra help, we've still had to reduce the hours our pools are open
We need a minimum of three lifeguards to work each shift, so at one pool, we've had to close for three hours in the middle of the day. However, we're lucky compared to some public pools that have had to close completely because they're so short staffed.
A lifeguard's role involves being vigilant around the pool, answering people's queries, and being ready to rush to someone's assistance, but they also teach people how to swim. With the shortage of lifeguards, this has been one of my biggest concerns, as we've had to reduce the amount of swimming lessons we can offer.
I can't stress enough how important it is for people to learn how to swim in Florida. We're a state filled with endless golden beaches. Jacksonville alone has 22 miles of sand. But our ocean is also challenging. Rip currents can affect many Florida beaches all year round. The beach is a place where you need to know how to save yourself if you get into trouble.
The toughest part of my job is telling a parent who wants to enroll their child in swim lessons that the class is full and we don't have room
When we opened our swim lessons on June 1, every class was fully booked until August within seven days.
I work between nine and 12 hours a day. I oversee six facilities and I'm in charge of swimming lessons, but now I also help patrol the pool.
While my team is staying positive, the shortages are never far from our minds. Now it's August, and we've reached peak season. The temperatures are also at their highest, so it can be tough standing by the outdoor pools. The lifeguards are tired because they're working more shifts to help reduce the shortage. But I tell them if there's ever a day when you're not on your A-game, you've got to let us know.
Thanks to the big social-media push by our marketing team, we're attracting new people
And if our lifeguards see avid swimmers in the pool, they'll ask them if they want to take part. That's how we found our retired lifeguards who are ex-military. What we want people to know is anyone can be a lifeguard if they have the commitment and the passion — you don't need to be a high schooler or Michael Phelps. And lifesaving is a skill that you can use anywhere, whether you're working at the pool or with your family.
We only ask that potential lifeguards be 16 years of age and be able to swim for 350 yards, tread water for two minutes using only their legs, dive 10 feet, and swim 15 feet underwater. They then need to do 36 hours of training, which includes a practical and written test, and when qualified they'll be certified in YMCA lifeguarding, CPR, and first-aid and oxygen administration.
We have a lot of work to do. I've noticed a lot of kids who swam pre-COVID have not used a swimming pool for two years and there was definitely a regression in their abilities. We really need to get these pools open. Get these kids back in the water, learning to swim, and hopefully encourage them to be lifeguards.
Do you have a summer job and want to share your story? Email Lauryn Haas at firstname.lastname@example.org
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