The city pool at 2102 Spruce St. closed due to a staffing shortage in Summer 2021. Credit: Harry Fuller

Empty pools could be a familiar sight at some city-run aquatic facilities once again this summer, if the Boulder Parks and Recreation Department is unable to staff nearly 100 open lifeguard positions.

“It’s a big need right now,” said Megann Lohman, the department’s senior manager of recreation and facilities. “We typically throughout the entire year have at least 100 lifeguards on staff — and the need in the summer always goes up. … We need probably 160 lifeguards to be fully operational. Right now, we have 65.” 

Lohman says the newly renovated Scott Carpenter Pool facilities alone — including a new leisure pool, lazy river and kids’ amenities —  require 12 lifeguards to operate per shift. Amid an ongoing national lifeguard shortage, the lack of staff could mean continued reduced services and summer closures of some city-run pools if staffing levels aren’t met by May 1.

“Staffing for lifeguards has been a challenge even before the pandemic, but it was never this much of a challenge,” Lohman said.

Those challenges may predate the pandemic, but Lohman says Covid-related furloughs have left her department with lots of catching up to do. 

“When you have to furlough folks, they go to other places,” she said. “We did try to get them back, but it was building from the bottom up.”

Another challenge is the process of certifying lifeguards and keeping them certified, says Jonathan Thornton, communications manager for the Parks and Recreation Department. 

“There is just more training and certification to work this type of position. And when those training certifications lapse, you have to be dedicated to try and get those certifications current again,” he said. “The city has been ramping up those training classes. But it’s taken a while to have the time and the space to be able to do that during the pandemic. So that also contributed to not being able to continually have staff roll over into these positions.”

Lohman says that safety training, which the city offers to new lifeguards for free, is one area where there can be no compromise in the service of staffing up.

“You can’t cut corners on safety,” she said. “Last year, our lifeguards saved three different people’s lives in our facilities. … When there is an emergency, we’re closing the pool and we’re getting their hands on the emergency — because they’re the trained experts in the building.”

Some city-run aquatics facilities could see service reductions or seasonal closures if the Boulder Parks and Recreation Department is unable to staff nearly 100 open lifeguard positions by May 1. Courtesy of City of Boulder

The city makes its pitch

City of Boulder pools are already operating at reduced hours due to the staffing shortage, with aquatic facilities at South Boulder Recreation Center and Spruce Pool currently closed. While Lohman says the city plans to operate more pools this summer than it did last summer — when no indoor leisure pools were open — she said those shuttered facilities could stay that way for the coming season if staffing needs aren’t met in time.

“If we don’t hit our targets, unfortunately pools like South Boulder or Spruce that get less usage, have fewer amenities and serve less of the public would probably be the first ones we would have to not operate because of a lack of staff,” Lohman said.

The city has adjusted starting pay from $13.50 to $15.25 per hour for lifeguards — the vast majority of whom are high school students — and $16.50 for head lifeguards, with full-time aquatic facility lead positions available at a higher rate with benefits. But Thornton says he doesn’t think money is the central issue keeping applicants away.

“They don’t start here necessarily because of the rate of pay,” he said. “It’s mainly because they like the culture. They like the job opportunity. They like the difference they can make in their community.”

That’s the pitch the Parks and Recreation Department will be making during its upcoming job fair at the North Boulder Recreation Center next Wednesday, April 13, as it seeks to fill more than 300 summer positions, including lifeguards.

“We may not be able to compete with other retail-type positions when it comes to pay,” Thornton said. “But we definitely think that we more than compete when it comes to the culture and type of position that we offer.”

To apply for an aquatics job with the City of Boulder — including lifeguard, head lifeguard and aquatic facility monitorclick here.

Archived work by Jezy Grazy for Boulder Reporting Lab.