Beach time, pool sessions and swimming lessons are in hot demand as temperatures soar across the Bay Area, but shorter hours and lengthy waitlists are creating challenges for families eager to beat the heat by jumping into cool waters.
For novice swimmers, learning to float and blow bubbles may prove especially difficult this summer.
More than three years after the world closed down, the pandemic continues to impact us in unexpected ways, including at public swimming pools and parks where last year’s lifeguard shortage has been joined by a swimming instructor shortfall.
An excessive heat warning for the Bay Area over the weekend and inland temperatures expected to veer into triple digits in the East Bay are creating fresh demand that just can’t be met.
In San Francisco, lifeguard rosters were only 77% full as summer kicked off. In Los Angeles County, pool hours have been cut in half. And in the East Bay, recreation centers that typically lose half their employees each year started this swim season with just three-quarters of their typical workforces.
The issue is a multifaceted one, according to Pete DeQuincy, aquatic manager at the East Bay Regional Park District, which includes swimming pools, lagoons and lakeside beaches. The one- to three-year attrition rate for swim instructors, combined with the strong labor market for low-wage workers, has created an unstable staffing situation that he expects pools will need to manage for some time.
“I think for a lot of agencies, it’s going to take several years before they’re at full capacity again,” he said.
Young people are choosing jobs elsewhere, where they’ll make more money, DeQuincy said. And the pandemic’s impact on school facilities, especially early on, means many high school and college students have been out of practice, which further diminishes the appeal of a poolside job, especially in a field where recertification is required every two years.
“If you haven’t swum for three years, you’re probably not going to take a chance on being a swim instructor,” he said.
Lifeguards undergo 28 hours of coursework, swim tests and practice sessions for American Red Cross certification, and it’s common for lifeguards to teach private lessons to augment their income. So when there’s a lifeguard shortage, it impacts everything from pool hours to swim lesson availability.
At Pleasant Hill Aquatic Park, where the staff completes two-hour trainings every week to supplement their certification education, Sarah Philson sits tall in the lifeguard chair. The soon-to-be high school junior comes from a long line of lifeguards. Swim meets were part of her childhood. So spending summer’s drawn-out dog days by the water wasn’t so much a decision for her as an inevitability. And like many lifeguards, she teaches children to swim when she’s not on pool deck duty.
“It seemed like a good job that paid,” Philson said, echoing a common refrain at the Pleasant Hill pool, where several fellow lifeguards, including Harry Disney, teach, too.
Juggling competing schedules is challenging, said Disney, who swims for his high school team, and “there have been times when instructors needed to have people fill in for them.”
Demand has outpaced both group lessons and one-on-one offerings so much, parents will likely have to wait until next season to see their children learn water-safety skills, said Pleasant Hill Aquatic Park manager Korey Riley.
“We’ve not been able to accommodate everyone who wants to learn to swim,” Riley said.
Summer lessons have taken a hit at Pleasanton’s Dolores Bengtson Aquatic Center too, where swimmers can tally laps in 50- and 25-meter pools and splash in a shallow pool with a water slide. Here, too, the problem is being fueled by a combination of staffing issues and pent-up demand. The pool complex is still in a transitional phase, as new hires continue to shadow old ones, said city recreation supervisor Tracy Newman. The impact has reduced operating hours and program availability, further limiting the number of spaces for swim classes.
And in Santa Clara County, the struggle for lifeguards means the Morgan Hill Aquatic Center is open for recreational swimming just three hours a day on weekdays and four on weekends, and summer swimming lesson slots were filled swiftly. City aquatic coordinator Susie Nguyen wishes more could be done to operate fully. The ray of hope for novice swimmers: Registration for fall swimming lessons opens July 17.
Fall lessons are exactly what DeQuincy recommends: Find lessons during the off-season months — September or October — when pools are still open but the crowds dissipate. Meanwhile, stay safe in the water. Only swim in designated areas near a lifeguard, swim with a buddy, and use a life jacket. The Red Cross recommends keeping young children within arm’s reach, even when wearing a life jacket; do not rely on water wings, swim rings or inflatable toys to keep your child safely afloat.