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Colorado greenlights community grants to open pools and save summer vacation

A lifeguard shortage is driving community pools across the nation to cut hours and, sometimes, close their gates.

AURORA, Colo. (CN) — A line of parents towing kids, towels and floats wraps around the front of the Del Mar Aquatic Center in Aurora, Colorado, at opening Friday. The piercing sun bakes into the concrete, but a hundred feet beyond the wrought iron fence, a cool paradise awaits, flowing with water slides, a dump bucket and diving boards.

“Swimming is a great way to get the kids’ energy out and make family time,” said Monica Delgado at the end of the line. She usually takes the kids the Central Park Recreation Center’s indoor pool in Denver, three to four times a week. Due to a shortage of lifeguards, however, Denver has closed five pools including Central Park and reduced hours at other facilities across the city.

Now the Delgado family swims at Del Mar once a week.

“We can't go to the indoor pool, so we're going to the outdoor pool, which is nice, but sometimes you don't want to get sunburned,” she said.

The summer disruption isn’t just a Denver metro phenomenon. Community pools nationwide from Portland, Oregon, to New York City have been shuttered by a dearth of properly trained lifeguards.

Red Cross lifeguard certification needs to be renewed every two years. With pools closed during the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, many would-be lifeguards found other jobs.

“That normal pipeline of training and hiring people to be lifeguards was cut short for a while. When they reopened, they had to find these people again and train them,” explained Juan Carlos Lopez, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Denver.

The public pool nearest the university, the 20th Street Recreation Center, has also been closed due to staffing shortages.

“For a long time you've had a tight labor market, and there's been good opportunities for workers,” Lopez said. “Lifeguard jobs tend to be seasonal, so if something that pays higher is more permanent, there might be an opportunity for people to forego being lifeguards and work in something else.”

The Athmar Recreation Center in Denver remains closed for the 2022 seasons. (Amanda Pampuro/Courthouse News)

Alexandre Padilla, an economics professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, pointed out that community pools are hard pressed to compete with businesses like Walmart and Amazon have raised pay to or near $20 an hour. Besides, the job isn’t what it looks like on TV.

“I am tempted to say that working as a lifeguard is not as fun as what 'Baywatch' pictures it to be,” Padilla said. “It’s all day long sitting at the pool in hot weather making sure a child or an adult does not suffer a life-threatening accident.”

With demand peaking amid a tight season, Colorado Governor Jared Polis and the Department of Local Affairs distributed $350,000 in grants to 71 communities across the state.

“We are helping expand pool hours and get closed pools open so that this July 4th and throughout the summer, Coloradans across the state can safely have fun with family and friends, learn to swim, exercise and recreate at our amazing public pools,” Polis said in a statement.

Dolled out in maximum allotments of $25,000, the money is helping towns big and small staff pools through the rest of the summer, covering lifeguard training and bonuses.

“Fortunately, we have now been given some tools, because public pools are not moneymakers,” said Kyle Horne, executive director of the Canon City Area Recreation and Park District, which was recently approved for a grant.

Located 100 miles south of Denver, Canon City has just one pool with a capacity of 225 people. With starting pay at $13 an hour, the recreation district often finds it difficult to compete with local businesses that pay higher wages and don’t require certification.

Horne said the state grant allows Canon City to pay out retention bonuses, incentivizing lifeguards to stay through the season and return next year.

The grants may literally be a life saver.

“For us in Canon City, we have the Arkansas River running right through the middle of town,” Horne said. “There have been drownings and rafting is a big thing in our community, so people really need to know how to swim. The pool is a life-saving tool.”

The state Department of Labor and Employment is also issuing temporary waivers to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work up to 10 hours of overtime, maxing out at a 54-hour work week.

A Denver spokesperson said it’s too early to gauge whether the state grants will have an impact this season. After all, funds were released Thursday with the goal of opening more pools by the Monday holiday.

Others, like Lafeyette north of Denver, announced extended hours will begin over the weekend. Colorado Springs, south of Denver, is also making big plans for the rest of the season.

“Coming off the pandemic isolation, having these pools open is extremely important for our community members,” said Teresa Johnson, chief experience officer for the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, which contracts with the city of Colorado Springs to run two pools and a recreation area. This year Johnson said they have 68% of staff needed leading to shortened hours and closures.

The state gave the organization a grant of $12,500 that will fund retention and referral bonuses, as well as overtime pay. The organization is also able to offer parttime benefits from childcare to retirement.

“For a lot of people, the pools offer different kinds of support, one is just cooling off in the summer, instead of having people at home and running air conditioners all day. I also think they are, for a lot of people, relatively inexpensive ways to congregate with other people,” said Lopez, of Metro State University. “They are a vital public resource.”

One thing is for sure: summer isn't the same without a trip to the local pool.

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