New York City, NY

Lifeguard School's Lesson: The Impact of Union Politics on Staff Shortages and Beach Closures

Sara Irshad
Photo byJulio Macias/Shutterstock

In the world of lifeguarding, New York City's lifeguard school stands out for more than just its training in water rescue techniques. The controversial unions representing lifeguards at city-run beaches and pools significantly influence the school's curriculum and operations.

While teaching aspiring lifeguards how to save lives, these unions also deliver anti-management messages and warnings about Department of Parks and Recreation bosses. As a result, the lifeguard school has become a battleground of union politics, impacting the recruitment of lifeguards and contributing to staff shortages that lead to the closures of stretches of beaches.

This article sheds light on the union's influence within the lifeguard school, the changes introduced by the new deputy commissioner, and the challenges faced in addressing the shortage of lifeguards.

Unions' Control over Lifeguard School

The lifeguard school, an essential training ground for lifeguards, has been unofficially managed by union leaders on the Parks Department payroll for years. This arrangement gives the unions significant control over the curriculum and messaging for aspiring lifeguards.

During a recent mandatory CPR class at the Chelsea Recreation Center, lifeguards were subjected to a 20-minute rant against Iris Rodriguez-Rosa, the Parks Department's first deputy commissioner. This overt warning about management personnel showcases the union's influence and the divisive atmosphere within the lifeguard community.

Changes Introduced by the New Deputy Commissioner

Rodriguez-Rosa, who succeeded the retired first deputy commissioner Liam Kavanagh, has initiated changes to address the lifeguard shortage and reduce the unions' power. Her efforts include contacting seasonal workers directly regarding full-time lifeguard positions, bypassing the unions' historical involvement.

These steps are intended to boost recruitment and streamline the hiring process. However, the blocks appear rattled by these changes, as evident from the warnings and criticisms against the new deputy commissioner during the CPR class.

Staff Shortages and Impact on Beaches

The shortage of lifeguards poses a significant challenge for the Parks Department, resulting in the closures of stretches of beaches across the city. With only 266 certified lifeguards available for the nearly 100 pools and 14 miles of public beaches, the current numbers fall far below the ideal strength of 1,400 lifeguards.

Commissioner Sue Donoghue testified at the City Council, highlighting the difficulty faced by the agency in filling lifeguard positions amidst a nationwide shortage. To keep the beaches open, the Parks Department has resorted to busing lifeguards from one coast to another, highlighting the strain caused by the staff shortage.

Barriers to Lifeguard Program Expansion

The inflexible schedules and union rules governing the lifeguard program hinder its expansion from meeting the growing demand. Last summer, a potential lifeguard candidate, Alexander Kidder, experienced firsthand the barriers imposed by the union-centric approach.

Despite passing the qualifying swim test, Kidder discovered that the training classes focused more on promoting the union's role than imparting essential water safety skills.

The requirement to work full-time at any pool in the city instead of locally further discouraged his participation. Kidder's experience highlights the need for reforms to create a more accessible and efficient lifeguard program.

Addressing the Challenges Ahead

While efforts have been made to improve communication and transparency within the lifeguard division, urgent action is required to tackle the lifeguard shortage. The Parks Department needs to collaborate with unions and make concerted efforts to recruit and train more lifeguards.

Flexibility in work schedules and location assignments could attract a wider pool of candidates, including experienced individuals like Alexander Kidder, who are willing to contribute part-time. Moreover, leveraging the expertise of lifeguard training pioneers like Francesco Pia and his instructional films can enhance the effectiveness of lifeguard training programs.

The influence of unions in New York City's lifeguard schools and the wider lifeguarding community has created a divisive atmosphere and hindered efforts to address staff shortages. The changes introduced by the new deputy commissioner, aimed at streamlining recruitment and reducing union control, have met resistance from union leaders.

To ensure the safety of beachgoers and prevent further closures, the Parks Department must find innovative solutions to attract and retain lifeguards, such as flexible schedules and location assignments. By embracing collaboration and leveraging the expertise of water safety pioneers, the lifeguard program can overcome its challenges and ensure the safety of New York City's residents and visitors.

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