Milwaukee County lifeguard shortage could block pool and beach openings


Milwaukee County Parks are looking for around 300 strong swimmers for lifeguard positions, and if they can’t find them, some pools and beaches won’t open this summer.

“We have four lifeguards and that means we can only open four facilities,” said Jim Tarantino, director of recreation and business services for Milwaukee County Parks.

The shortage of lifeguards has been a problem for years. There has been a steady decline over the past four years in the number of lifeguards the system has employed.

In 2017, the parks service had 202 lifeguards; in 2018, that figure fell to 177. The following year, the number of lifeguards on staff dropped again to 131. The Parks Department had no lifeguards on staff in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Now, the parks service has only 52 lifeguards. Tarantino said the shortage was in line with national trends.

“It appears that all communities across the country are also suffering from shortages,” Tarantino said.

The hiring freeze in 2020 has led many lifeguards to find other jobs, and competition with summer internships has also played a role, Tarantino said.

“The ability to swim is a major challenge as we need our candidates to be good swimmers (100 meters in 1 minute and 45 seconds) and this skill is simply lacking in our community right now,” said Tarantino.

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The Parks Department is gearing up for a particularly busy summer, and many in the restaurant, tourism and service industries say they expect an equally busy summer as the pandemic loosens its grip. This will mean even more competition for available workers.

Overall, Milwaukee County Parks are looking to fill more than 500 seasonal positions, including outdoor gardens, golf courses, and botanical gardens. “It has been extremely difficult to hire for a seasonal job,” Tarantino said.

Pools not opening this summer, regardless of staffing issues, include: Grobschmidt Park, Hales Corners Park, Holler Park, Jackson Park and McCarty Park.

Pools likely to remain open include: Cool Waters in Greenfield Park, Schulz Aquatic Center in Lincoln Park, Sheridan Park, and Wilson Park

The opening of Pelican Cove in Kosciuszko Park and Bradford Beach “remains in motion,” according to Tarantino. However, last year Bradford Beach went without lifeguards and that remains a possibility this year.

“Bradford Beach, we probably won’t have guards there this year; we didn’t have guards last year so that will be a challenge,” Tarantino said.

The skill set of guarding a beach is more difficult than guarding a pool, and the Parks Department works with law enforcement to increase security.

There were 56 drownings on Lake Michigan in 2020, with some of those drownings occurring in Wisconsin waters, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

McKinley Beach was particularly dangerous. There were at least four drownings at McKinley Beach in 2020, including a 14-year-old boy and a 50-year-old man who tried to save the boy.

RELATED:A 14-year-old swimmer and a 50-year-old man who tried to save him from drowning at McKinley Beach both died

McKinley Beach will remain closed while the parks department conducts water safety studies, Tarantino said.

The pay for lifeguards ranges from $ 12.69 to $ 14.74 per hour and that of head guards ranges from $ 16.97 to $ 19.07 per hour.

Tarantino appeared before the Milwaukee County Parks Committee on Tuesday, where county supervisor Steven Shea had objections to compensation.

“Looking at the requirements to be a lifeguard, there are some serious job requirements, it seems to me that $ 12 an hour is just not a required pay,” said Shea.

“I don’t disagree, these people are incredibly important,” Tarantino said. “In general, we would be happy to pay our employees more.”

Committee chairman Sheldon Wasserman also suggested raising salaries.

“If we increased our salary from three to five dollars an hour, I think we could potentially bring people from other jobs with us,” he said.

“We have a crisis here … we have a summer to come and it will be a hot summer, the children want to jump in the water, the parents want their children to be safe, they trust the lifeguards,” said Wasserman.

To be considered for a lifeguard position, applicants must attend a free training session at Pulaski Pool, 2701 S. 16th St., and be able to swim 100 meters in less than 1 minute 45 seconds. Lifeguards must be at least 16 years old by July 2021 and be in good physical condition.

Those interested in applying for a seasonal position in the county, including lifeguards, can apply on the county employment portal.

Contact Drake Bentley at (414) 391-5647 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @drake_bentley.


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