After three summers of closures, capacity restrictions and reduced hours, Baltimore-area pools are back to normal.
Cooling off can resume in full force this season, thanks to monthslong efforts to recruit more lifeguards amid a national shortage, local pool operators say.
The key to have enough staff, they say, is plain and simple: cash.
The recreation and parks departments for Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, along with the Columbia Association, which operates 28 pools in Howard County, all report increased pay, free lifeguard certifications, along with other incentives, like free gym and facilities access, have been the biggest ways to retain and recruit staff, many of whom are teens.
“It’s mostly the pay,” said Jacque Hurman, the chief of recreation services in Anne Arundel County. “We haven’t changed the way we recruit and train.”
The Columbia Association, which usually hires 550 lifeguards, lesson instructors and swim coaches, experienced a shortage of lifeguards during the pandemic, which led to seasonal closures of more than half of the association’s pools in the summer of 2020. Several pools, like Hopewell, Huntington and Running Brook, were forced to close one to two weeks early.
Marty Oltmanns, the association’s aquatics director, described the situation as “very heartbreaking for the community,” where more than 2,000 kids each summer join its neighborhood swim league.
“Last summer, we were short about 75, 80 lifeguards for most of the summer,” said Oltmanns. “This year, we have hit the number we need for the summer, and we’re not taking our foot off the gas. We are fully staffed and still continuing to hire.”
Over half of Columbia Association’s lifeguard staff come directly from the neighborhood swim league, which Oltmanns said is “one of the reasons why I think we’re doing really well.”
The Columbia Association reports an overwhelming demand for swim lessons from both new students and older kids who were not able to get instructions during the pandemic.
“The biggest issue I’ve seen this summer is swim lesson availability,” said Oltmanns. “Water safety is the biggest concern right now. Pre-pandemic, we had on average 75 rescues in the summer. Last summer, we had 151 rescues.”
Since 2019, the Columbia Association increased lifeguard pay from $10.10 per hour to $15 per hour this summer. Next summer, it will increase to a $16 hourly wage.
Similarly, the parks and recreation department of Baltimore City upped its lifeguard pay from $13.50 per hour last year to $16 per hour this year, plus a $500 end-of-the season bonus. Anne Arundel County pays its guards more than $15 per hour.
This year, teens are making more money and holding down more jobs, especially in industries like sports, recreation, and food and beverage.
According to a recent report by the payroll company Gusto, teens were expected to make up 18% of all hires this month, compared to 2% of hires in June 2019. The average hourly wage for teens between ages 15 and 19 hit $14.89 in May — an increase of 41% since 2020.
Along with higher wages, Nikki Cobbs, the chief of aquatics in Baltimore City, believes that creating a fun work atmosphere for teens was a reason for the successful hiring season. The department has reached about 87% of its lifeguard capacity of 90 guards.
Cobbs launched a recruitment effort that helped engage strong high school swimmers through incentives like competitive pay and pizza parties.
Last year, the city’s aquatics department hosted the Baltimore City Swim Meet, where high school swimmers from schools like Patterson High School, Edmondson-Westside High School, and Carver Vocational Technical High School competed and got to know the city’s lifeguards.
“We started a program called the Lifeguard Club, where our older guards show peers the skills needed to pass the lifeguard class,” said Cobbs.
Baltimore City has also seen more money come in from a recent initiative by the mayor to fund more evening activities for youth, like “teen zone” after-hours pool parties at Druid Hill Park, Riverside Park, William McAbee Pool and Roosevelt Park throughout the summer. Dates can be found on the department’s website.
Baltimore residents Robin Metcalfe-Klaw and her husband, Steven Martinez, visited Roosevelt Park Pool in Hampden Thursday afternoon, where many kids were soaking up the sunlight and playing with neon pool toys. Some families had brought food for picnics to enjoy on the surrounding park benches.
Metcalfe-Klaw and Martinez believe community pools are a good thing for the community.
”When we have kids, we’ll definitely bring them to these pools,” Metcalfe-Klaw added.
This year, all of the Baltimore City pools are expected to be open seven days a week, with the exception of neighborhood pools, like Baybrook, C.C. Jackson, Liberty, O’Donnell, McAbee and Oliver, which will be open from Monday to Saturday.