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Council pushes for plans to hire more lifeguards

Friday, March 25, 2022 by Jo Clifton

The city of Austin, which operates 45 aquatic facilities, is desperately seeking lifeguards. Parks and Recreation Department spokeswoman Kanya Lyons told the Austin Monitor Thursday that her department still needs to hire 614 more lifeguards. Ideally, the city would like to have 750 lifeguard positions filled by the beginning of the summer.

The situation is particularly dire at Barton Springs Pool, which recently announced it will close two days a week because of the lifeguard shortage.

Acting on a resolution primarily authored by Council Member Paige Ellis, Council has directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to come up with solutions to the lifeguard shortage and to come back to Council with his ideas by April 7, the date of the next Council meeting. In addition to the fact that people don’t respond well to pool closings, Council members Chito Vela and Alison Alter revealed another reason for their strong interest in the subject: both previously served as lifeguards and Vela worked at Barton Springs Pool. Ellis has already spoken fondly of her days as a lifeguard in Austin.

Among the strategies suggested in the resolution is making full-time-equivalent lifeguards permanent employees with benefits. According to Krissy O’Brien from the city labor union AFSCME, that idea could be most fruitful in convincing workers to sign up for lifeguard positions and to continue working for the city.

The resolution also urges the city manager to consider implementing longevity pay for temporary employees who return to the pools for consecutive seasons. Staff will also have to look at providing additional summer completion bonuses. The city website currently boasts “a $500 summer completion bonus for all temporary lifeguard staff who are 1) fully trained and working June 1 through Aug. 15; and 2) working three shifts per week.”

O’Brien, who is part of the city’s living-wage working group, told Council members that they should consider raising the city’s minimum wage to $22 per hour. Two lifeguards who spoke Thursday also urged Council to raise the minimum to $22, a move supported by the Parks and Recreation Board’s finance committee. O’Brien said she is expecting Council to have a work session on recommendations from the living-wage group in the near future, including the $22 per hour minimum wage for next year.

AFSCME announced Thursday it would begin a campaign to raise the city’s living wage with a kickoff event Saturday honoring labor leader Cesar Chavez. The event will start at 10:30 a.m. at Parque Zaragoza.

Barton Springs Pool lifeguard Scott Cobb told Council he had just gotten an email from the city saying there are only “five to nine Barton Springs lifeguards with open availability of the 26 (needed).” He said the best solution to the problem is to raise the hourly wage to $22 and also pay lifeguards for the time it takes them to commute to the pools. Cobb noted that, while lifeguards receive free bus passes, it does him little good because it takes two hours on a bus to commute from his home. He said lifeguards receive free lunches during spring break, which he said was helpful in terms of both money and time.

Angela Richter of the Austin Parks Foundation told Council her group was willing to help the city. Bobby Garza, a member of the foundation’s board of directors, told the Monitor the organization would be willing to contribute $10,000 to the city for scholarships for lifeguards.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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