Soukup began lifeguarding at her North Chesterfield County neighborhood pool, which she said she enjoyed because of the community. Later, she lifeguarded at another small community pool and at Swim RVA, an Olympic-style swimming pool, where swim teams practice and meets are held year-round.
“You are getting paid minimum wage to not only be on stand for a long time and getting exhausted in the heat … sitting there is not your only job,” Soukup said.
When Soukup started lifeguarding, the minimum hourly wage was $7.25. Since then, it has risen to $11. At her previous pools, on top of guarding she was in charge of cleaning the bathrooms without any extra compensation.
Soukup is not the only lifeguard who is finding employment elsewhere.
Lifeguards are in high demand across the country.
In Chicago, 686 people had applied to become lifeguards and none had been hired — the candidates needed their certification from the American Red Cross, which had only recently resumed training following the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Lewes, Del., “Swim at your own risk” signs were placed on the beaches as a result of staffing shortages.
In Philadelphia, the city only had enough lifeguards to open 18 of its 65 public outdoor pools.
The lifeguard shortage hit greater Richmond last year as well. Colliding with COVID restrictions, pools had to adjust operations to ensure a proper level of safety.
Tamara Jenkins, a spokesperson for Richmond Parks & Recreation, says the department had to limit the capacity of its nine public swimming pools.
Chrissy Fandel, the association aquatics director at YMCA of Greater Richmond, said, “We’ve been doing our very best to try and keep our pool locations open for our members to use. But that may change based on the ability to keep the pool safe. If we don’t have enough lifeguards, then hours do have to be modified.”
As COVID restrictions continue to lift, the demand for workers continues to grow. One trend is rising wages.
This summer, Soukup is opting to be a nanny. According to Indeed.com, the average hourly wage for a nanny or babysitter in the Richmond area is $19 an hour.
Despite Virginia’s minimum wage raising to $11 per hour in January, many employers are offering more. Employees at Starbucks make at least $15 per hour and $17 per hour during the summer. Chipotle raised its wages to an average of $15 for its employees.
The Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University predicts the employment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds this summer is 32.8%. In 2021, Virginia had an employment rate of 45.9%, which was ranked 19th out of all 50 states and Washington.
Aquatic centers are also raising their wages significantly to compete with the growing demand for workers.
Jenkins reported that the lifeguard pay starts at $17 an hour for Richmond’s public pools. This is a change from the $15 lifeguards previously made due to the city of Richmond’s requirements that all positions start at $17.
Richmond public pools are in full operation capacity this year. Over Memorial Day weekend, they welcomed nearly 3,000 people, Jenkins said. While Richmond still has some lifeguard positions open, Jenkins said they are in a good position to operate for the summer.
Some venues, like the aquatic center at Pocahontas State Park, partner with companies like Swim Club Management Group of Virginia, a private contractor that provides lifeguard services. The public-private partnership allowed the park to “borrow” lifeguards from other areas as needed.
Lifeguards directly hired by Pocahontas were generally high school and college students, said park manager Nate Clark.
The park aimed to hire 30 lifeguards for the summer at $15 an hour.
“We (Virginia State Parks) rely really, really heavily on our seasonal summer staff, but it seems like the last couple of years, it’s been a little more difficult to get people on enough applications and get positions filled,” Clark said.
Over the past two years, Swim Club Management Group had struggled to hire lifeguards, said regional director Tanner Kelson. This year, knowing that many of its branches were facing similar issues, it made sure to take proactive steps to curb the shortage.
“We’re not being faced with the implications of a lifeguard shortage, but we knew that there were certain things we’d need to do within our company to ensure we would have the lifeguards to staff our facilities,” Kelson said.
By raising the starting pay to $15 an hour and creating a welcoming work environment, the group was able to hire 585 of their recommended 600 lifeguards for the summer season — the majority of them being high schoolers.
For some establishments, like Westview on the James, raising wages was not an option. Westview is a sleepaway camp in Goochland County that is still looking to hire waterfront specialists who lifeguard and lead campers in activities on water trampolines, boats and a slide. Counselors at the camp do not make an hourly wage, but are paid weekly.
Sydney Barefoot, Westview’s aquatic director, says applicants are losing interest in having a “fun” job in favor of higher-paying ones.
“My biggest issue is keeping people interested in the position after they apply,” Barefoot said. “I’ll get a number of applications in, but after the interviewing and hiring process is over, I’ll get a call or an email that says a higher-paying job position or internship has kind of come around, and it just sways people away from wanting to be a lifeguard.”
As of now, Westview has only two of the desired four waterfront staff positions filled, and Barefoot says this is affecting the camp’s operations.
“We do have to modify some activities and even cancel activities to make sure that everyone in the water is being watched,” Barefoot said.
Even with paying competitive wages, not every individual is qualified to be a lifeguard.
All potential lifeguards have to be certified through a class that tests their knowledge and swimming skills. The certification can cost anywhere from $275 to $385 depending on the service. Many employers, including the YMCAs of Greater Richmond, pay for the cost of the training to lower the barrier for potential employees.
Fandel says the YMCA pays for lifeguard training and gives bonuses to employees who refer others that are lifeguard-certified.
In addition, there will also be the opportunity to attend a lifeguard preparatory program through the Goochland Family YMCA. The program is geared toward those who want to become lifeguards but need more training
Swim Club Management and Westview on the James pay for their employees’ certifications as well.
However, many lifeguards with experience will have moved on by now, Clark said. Former lifeguards at Pocahontas who may have been working for multiple summers in a row have most likely moved on to other positions after graduating from high school or college during the two-year COVID hiatus.
Without lifeguards who know the park and the rules and regulations — and returners who would need to get recertified — they’re starting from scratch.
“That could be a contributing factor,” he said. “There’s a whole training and certification schedule.”
Fandel concurred, relating that the YMCA often struggles to find candidates who are able to handle the physical and mental strain.
“It’s a lot of physical fitness requirements, and then on top of that, just the mental ability to be able to make quick decisions you know, split-second decisions that could be the difference between whether someone survives or not,” Fandel said.
“Finding candidates with both the mental and the physical requirements has been really challenging, because you might find someone who’s got the physical fitness components, but maybe not the best decision-making skills and then you might have somebody who is really, really smart, but maybe not there with the physical requirements,” she added. “So that’s a big part of the challenge that I have seen.”
For organizations like Westview on the James, ensuring water safety is a top priority.
Westview has eight weeklong sessions for children ages 7 to 14 and half-week sessions for children ages 5 to 9. For a few weeks, Westview has a Care and Connect program that hosts children who have never had the opportunity to attend camp before. In addition, Westview offers a discounted rate for lower-income families, and many churches sponsor campers’ tuition.
“There are a lot of kids who haven’t had swimming experience or been camping for a week before, so there are all sorts of challenges,” Barefoot said. “And then with the water activities, the kids typically need a lot more attention, guidance and help in the water to be comfortable and to be able to participate.”
In 2020, drowning was the second-leading cause of accidental deaths among children under age 17, just behind motor accidents, according to Virginia’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s annual report. Providing free pool access is shown to reduce inequality in physical activity and increase swimming participation, according to a 2019 study in the Journal of Public Health.
“Public pools help level out the playing field and assist in introducing non-traditional groups to aquatics opportunities such as swim teams, diving, swim lessons and other aquatics-based programs,” Jenkins said. “Public pools are important because without them, thousands of people would miss out on life-changing, lifesaving skills that last a lifetime.”
In addition to income-based swimming gaps, there are racial swimming gaps. According to USA Swimming, 70% of African Americans don’t know how to swim. Black people make up 40% of Richmond’s population.
“Our aquatics facilities have a very assorted range of economic demographics that use the pools,” Jenkins said. “Although we do not track income, our pools paint a clear image of an increasingly diverse city of Richmond.”
Clark said Pocahontas isn’t fully sure what to expect this summer. Many people are excited to get back into summer activities, but some are still concerned about COVID. But given the attendance during Memorial Day weekend, he said he thinks it’s going to be a good one.
“We may not have quite the same numbers we’ve had in the past,” he said, “but I think it’s still going to be a great season.”