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PARD continues to work through lifeguard staffing shortages

Tuesday, June 29, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

After a year of lockdown measures and closures aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus, Austinites have entered the summer season ready to interact with the world again. But as people head outdoors, they’re noticing that the city’s aquatics operations aren’t as robust as in previous years, with many pools and splash pads around the city still closed.

The reason boils down to staffing, the pandemic and the winter storm.

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department didn’t enter the season with enough lifeguards to staff all available pools. PARD’s lifeguard staffing issue is not a new development; the shortage has been on the horizon for months.

In January, the department put out a memo to Mayor Steve Adler and City Council letting them know that the department would need to hire 600 lifeguards by May. PARD fell well short of this target and as of June 14, had only 219 guards on payroll.

To help mitigate staffing complications, PARD implemented “a tiered opening schedule, based upon the number of lifeguard staff needed to operate the facilities, with estimated opening dates.”

In an email to the Austin Monitor, parks department spokesperson Kanya Lyons said that the tier system determining which pools would open first was based on factors like location or proximity to other facilities, staffing levels needed to operate the pool, programming needs, and the department’s maintenance/repair schedule.

Pools like Bartholomew, Barton Springs and Deep Eddy opened first, and pools like Parque Zaragoza, Rosewood and Montopolis opened on June 19 as the staffing shortage began to ease in recent weeks. As of Monday, PARD has 316 guards on staff.

The department considers the shortage to be “a direct result of operational modifications necessary during the pandemic.”

The city had to stop hiring lifeguards in March of last year as the pandemic began spreading, and wasn’t able to resume hiring efforts again until March of this year. But even then, hiring efforts have been stalled by limits on the number of guards who can be trained at one time due to coronavirus protocols.

Things do seem to be trending upward, though. Lyons told the Monitor that the Aquatics Division “has been teaching classes at capacity since hiring resumed in order to get as many lifeguards as possible certified and working.”

Another complicating factor impacting operations is the continued fallout from the February winter storm that left millions of Texans without power. After the storm passed, Parks and Recreation Department Director Kimberly McNeeley estimated that the city’s park system had suffered around $1 million in damages as a direct result of the storm.

A memo released earlier this month explained that all of the city’s aquatic facilities sustained some damage during the storm, delaying the city’s repair schedule, testing for the presence of lead and asbestos, and the availability of parts and contractors.

The city has prioritized repairs by focusing on year-round pools first, then pools where lifeguard training courses are conducted, and then all other aquatic facilities. Currently, there are nine pools throughout the city that aren’t expected to open until summer of next year.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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