Why are there so many red flags on the beach? The short answer? There’s just not enough lifeguards. As the country faces another nationwide lifeguard shortage, New York City’s beaches, including Rockaway, have once again not been spared. The Rockaway Times recently sat down with District 31 Councilwoman Joann Ariola to discuss the matter.
On average, each year, NYC Parks seeks 1,400 to 1,500 lifeguards a year to man New York City’s 14-miles of beach and 53 outdoor pools. Those are numbers that haven’t been seen since pre-Covid, with 1,424 hired in 2019. By 2020, at the peak of Covid, that number was cut in half, with only 740 lifeguards hired. The following summer, 2021, saw a slight bounce back with 1,013 lifeguards hired but by last year, a decline began once again with only about 850 lifeguards hired. This summer, it’s even less so far with 800 lifeguards watching over the city’s beaches and pools, according to NYC Parks.
And it wasn’t for a lack of trying to recruit. According to Councilwoman Joann Ariola, when she was elected, she met with Parks’ new First Deputy Commissioner Iris Rodriguez-Rosa, who took over in February 2022, to discuss ways to ramp up recruitment. “I had a meeting with her, and she made it her mission to make sure we had ample lifeguards for the city,” Ariola said. But there has been an obstacle in the way—the ever-powerful lifeguard union, DC37, led by Peter Stein, who seems to call all the shots when it comes to how the city’s lifeguard program operates. “Iris’ job was almost insurmountable because of the pushback from the lifeguard union and President Peter Stein,” Ariola said.
Yet Rodriguez-Rosa has been persistent. “To her credit, she pushed back and was able to win on a lot of different fronts,” Ariola said. Many of those include efforts to make the job more desirable. This includes boosting the starting pay for new guards from $19.46 to $21.26 per hour, plus bonuses for senior guards, although these incentives were not announced until April 25, after qualification tests had already ended this year. Ariola also credits Rodriguez-Rosa with giving new recruits more opportunities to pass the qualifying test, as in, if they failed, they were able to try again. NYC Parks in general has also tried to help new recruits by offering free swim skills clinics to help potential candidates train for the qualifying test, and the qualification test was made even easier this year, with candidates having to swim 50 yards in 45 seconds instead of the usual 35 seconds to qualify for the 16-week training program, with the requirements for the final test to get hired remaining the same.
According to Ariola and lifeguards on the job, Rodriguez-Rosa has also served as an advocate for lifeguards already on the job. “She’s made sure to work with the longtime lifeguards and has listened to their concerns to try to make their work environment better,” Ariola said. Rockaway lifeguards, who spearheaded an unofficial return of the lifeguard Olympics last summer, say Rodriguez-Rosa has been instrumental in launching an official NYC Parks-backed lifeguard Olympics this summer, and she’s had their backs. “Iris has been phenomenal,” one longtime Rockaway lifeguard told The Rockaway Times.
NYC Parks even made attempts to ramp up recruitment efforts. They sent out recruitment flyers soon after last summer ended, notifying the city about the upcoming qualifying tests beginning in December 2022. And according to Ariola, outreach went even deeper than that. “The classes were advertised on social media, on college campuses, in high schools and not just in the five boroughs but beyond,” she said. NYC Parks says they hired 180 new recruits this year, a 50% increase from last year. However, it somehow still wasn’t enough. “We did not have as many people as we would have liked to apply,” she said.
In her opinion, Ariola believes the residual effects of the Covid pandemic are still being felt. “I think the pandemic was a big factor because everything was closed, including pools. We’re not at the pre-pandemic numbers,” she said.
And despite efforts to make improvements on the job, Ariola believes there’s still more to be done, including paying city guards more. “Even though we’ve been able to increase salaries for new lifeguards, it’s still not competitive with our neighbors on Long Island and on federal beaches. People come and get this incredible training that you get from NYC Parks to become a lifeguard, and then take a position elsewhere because it pays more,” she said.
She also believes more needs to be done to retain longtime lifeguards who often become frustrated with how the job operates due to the power the union holds. The Rockaway Times mentioned an incident in which a senior guard claims he was assaulted by a longtime lifeguard chief last year and says the chief was never held accountable, but instead, the lifeguard was punished for filing the complaint, by being moved to a shack five miles away. That lifeguard decided not to return to the job this summer.
After being told of this incident, Ariola said, “There’s a culture of retribution for any lifeguard that speaks out against what’s been happening and Parks has been trying to end that culture by working with the union, DC37, and they have made great strides, although Peter Stein runs that union as if it’s not part of the larger DC37 union.” She then explained one improvement, after THE CITY’s Katie Honan reported that there was even a shortage of lifeguard chiefs this year, a position that seems to be filled by a system of favoritism overseen by the union. For the first time, following that report, qualified lifeguards received notice of an open job application from NYC Parks to apply to be chief.
Yet there’s still more work to be done with the union’s involvement. “As long as the union pushes back the way it does, it’s going to be an uphill battle and we can’t keep losing lifeguards who don’t like how they were treated the season before,” she said. Ariola suggests one way to avoid this problem is by not having to deal with DC37 at all. “I always considered lifeguards as first responders and believe they should come under the FDNY and not the Parks Department or DC37,” she said.
In the meantime, Ariola says she’ll continue to work closely with NYC Parks to help improve job conditions and make being a NYC Lifeguard a source of pride in the city that others will want to be a part of. “We’ve worked with Parks and the commissioner hand in hand on all of these issues and while we have come far, it’s not far enough, but we will not stop until we see all of our beaches covered by qualified lifeguards who are happy with their job, who are retained year to year and are receiving the pay equity and respect that they deserve,” she said.
Despite the continued lifeguard shortage, during a season where rip current warnings have been consistent in Rockaway, drownings are still relatively low this summer. Rockaway has only seen two fatal drownings this year, in incidents where lifeguards would not have been present even if staffing was at full capacity. The first incident, on July 3, involved a 14-year-old boy who drowned at a time when lifeguards were not present as the beach was closed due to a thunderstorm. The second incident, on July 7, resulted in the death of a 32-year-old man who went swimming on Beach 91st, a surfing beach that is never staffed with lifeguards.
Information on becoming a NYC Lifeguard can be found at: www.nycgovparks.org/opportunities/jobs/lifeguards