Philly needs 60 more lifeguards to open most pools this summer

They’ve raised pay, knocked on doors, and even started a TikTok account to recruit more lifeguards, but Philly pools are still running short on staff.

Breana Cooper, 25, has been a lifeguard for 7 years and was just rectified at Samuel Recreation Center in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Breana Cooper, 25, has been a lifeguard for 7 years and was just rectified at Samuel Recreation Center in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia public pools are still plagued by a lifeguard shortage — but officials are optimistic that this summer will be better.

There’s less than a month left until Philly’s public pools are scheduled to start opening. But the Department of Parks & Recreation still needs to hire more lifeguards. Officials say if they get about 60 more staffers signed up, they’ll be able to open 65 of their usual 70+ pools.

“They’re the lifeblood of a community in the summertime,” said Bill Salvatore, deputy commissioner of programming at Parks & Rec. “With everything going on in the city with heat deserts and all that, it’s really important to get kids somewhere to cool off.”

That would be the most public pools open in Philadelphia in three years.

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In 2020, the pools couldn’t open at all due to the pandemic, and related budget cuts. Then, Parks & Rec could only open about 70% of its usual slate of public pools in 2021 — because of the nationwide lifeguard shortage.

In the runup to this year’s swim season, Parks & Rec fought to recruit more lifeguards. The department bumped their salaries to $16 per hour, up from $15.25 last year. They’re also covering the certification fees for lifeguards ages 16 to 24.

Parks & Rec reached out to lifeguards from the 2019 season, asking them to come back for another year. They also launched a “social media blitz,” Salvatore said, including a new TikTok account run by Philly lifeguards.

“Every call I’m on no matter what city agency it is, they’re saying, ‘If you have a 16-year-old or you know, someone older who wants to lifeguard, send them our way and we’ll hire them,’” Salvatore said.

But Parks & Rec isn’t just reaching out to teenagers.

This year, the department got an unusual idea: recruit older adults as lifeguards, too. Salvatore said Parks & Rec reached out to the city’s older adult centers. Among their most proud accomplishments is pulling in a 70-year-old retiree to lifeguard this summer, who last held the job when she was 17 years old.

It’s a gig that some people call their favorite job — one where you can make some extra money, meet new friends, and build community connections.

To become a lifeguard, you have to be at least 16 years old. You’ll be expected to work about 35 hours per week from June through August.

If you’re 25 or older, you’ll have to pay for your own certification — which will cost you $110 if it’s your first time being certified, or $65 for recertification.

If you’re interested, you can fill out an application and sign up for skills training at pools all over the city.

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Philly isn’t the only place battling a lifeguard shortage. Some pools in Central Pennsylvania will have to reduce their hours this summer because of a lack of lifeguards. A similar situation is playing out at some Jersey Shore beaches.

This summer, Salvatore is hopeful.

“The good news is we’re further along than we were last year,” Salvatore said. “If we get another 60 or 70 lifeguards, we’ll feel really good about it.”

Still, the clock is ticking. The first round of Philly pools are scheduled to open on June 21.

“We’re going to keep beating the hedges until we get there,” Salvatore said.

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