Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Lifeguard Shortage Closes County Pools

Bradford beach will go without guards and only four pools are opening.

By - Jun 9th, 2021 11:16 am
Bradford Beach, July 25th, 2009. Photo by Dave Reid.

Bradford Beach, July 25th, 2009. Photo by Dave Reid.

There will be no lifeguards on Bradford Beach this summer, and only four public pools will be open due to a lifeguard shortage in the Milwaukee County Parks system.

The county parks system has struggled with declining numbers of lifeguard recruits in recent years. In fact, the shortage of lifeguards is a problem occurring all over the country.

In May, the parks department reported it had only 52 guards for the entire parks system heading into the 2021 swim season. In 2019, the county had 135 guards.

At a meeting of the Milwaukee County Board’s Personnel Committee Tuesday, a parks official told supervisors there would be no lifeguards on Bradford Beach in 2021, and that only four of the county’s pools would be open.

The four pools that will be open are at Sheridan Park, Wilson Park, Cool Waters and the David F. Schulz Aquatic Center. The rest of the county’s pools will remain closed throughout summer 2021, though some of these pools, like those at Jackson Park and McCarty Park, were closed for budgetary reasons. More than a dozen splash pads and wading pools will also open this summer.

James Tarantino, director of business services for parks, said that the parks department has managed to hire more than 20 additional lifeguards since the board was briefed on the issue in May, bringing the total to between 75 and 80 guards. 

But there still aren’t enough guards, specifically experienced guards, to staff more facilities. The swim season has begun, and all of parks’ lifeguard training sessions are over. 

County parks lifeguarding jobs are seasonal positions, which makes it difficult to staff as it relies on employees returning after being gone, potentially finding other employment, for most of the year. This is why lifeguarding jobs have traditionally been filled by high  school and college students.

The job also requires extensive training relative to other jobs that might be held by teenagers and young adults. When the pandemic caused widespread pool closures, it disrupted the seasonal process of training and recertification, likely stopping some from becoming lifeguards and others from getting re-certified.

The department only has four returning head guards in 2021 and none of them have beach experience. This, Tarantino told the supervisors, is one of the key factors stopping additional facilities from being opened or staffed with guards.

Each swimming facility needs a head guard to act as a manager so the facility can open.

Parks has tried to make the job more attractive by raising wages in 2020, with starting wages beginning at $12.68 an hour.

Supervisors John Weishan and Patti Logsdon expressed their displeasure with the pool closures because of the guard shortage.

“I don’t want to hear excuses,” Weishan said. The county board budgeted to have pools open, he said, and the parks department should do what it needs to do in order to have enough lifeguards.

Beyond lifeguards, parks is also having trouble hiring enough seasonal workers to staff aquatic facilities and other parks amenities like golf courses and beer gardens. This, too, is a problem parks officials have attributed to pandemic closures in 2020, which led potential employees to find other work.

Categories: Health, MKE County, Parks, Weekly

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