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City still working on a fix for Austin’s lifeguard shortage

Friday, April 15, 2022 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Parks and Recreation Department has put together a plan that “will allow for the successful operation” of Barton Springs Pool and a return to normal hours as soon as staffing numbers can support it. But critics say the city’s strategies don’t go far enough. 

The Aquatic Division is still looking to hire nearly 600 lifeguards to fully staff the pool system this summer. Without adequate staffing, Barton Springs Pool could be closed on Mondays and Wednesdays this summer. 

An April 13 memo from parks department Director Kimberly McNeeley lays out the department’s response to a resolution approved by City Council in March that asked City Manager Spencer Cronk to return to Council with solutions to an ongoing shortage of lifeguards. The resolution suggested that making lifeguards full-time permanent city employees and implementing longevity pay could help retain lifeguards. 

The city’s union, AFSCME, and the Parks and Recreation Board have supported raising the city’s minimum wage to $22 per hour. But the memo pushes back against that plan, suggesting instead a raise of $1 per hour. 

“It is important to note, hourly pay rate considerations have the potential to result in pay rate issues within other city departments,” the memo cautions. It is the only sentence of the memo written in bold. 

A $1 raise for summer employees would cost the city $729,000, according to the memo. More than that could cost up to $3.9 million, according to McNeeley, though she writes that the “extent of these impacts requires more in-depth consideration.” The suggestion to provide “service incentive pay” and longevity pay is still under review. 

Instead of the pay increase, the parks department suggests leaning in to incentives and bonuses. According to the memo, that could include waiving a $20 training fee, providing free uniforms, giving lifeguards a $500 bonus for completing the summer, and touting free bus passes that are already available.

The memo also suggests another $500 bonus for lifeguards who commit to working a certain schedule and a $250 bonus for lifeguards who obtain advanced lifeguarding certifications, like the one required at Barton Springs.

Barton Springs open water lifeguard Scott Cobb is currently making the rounds to Council offices with a different proposal for a solution to lifeguard understaffing. In addition to raising the living wage to $22, they ask that lifeguards be given holiday pay, paid time off, lunch, access to health and dental insurance, longevity pay, transportation stipends and an educational savings plan. The group would also like to see women lifeguards offered the choice to wear one- or two-piece suits and the elimination of “at will” employment after two summers or 12 consecutive months of employment.

The city is working with groups like Austin Parks Foundation, Friends of Barton Springs and the Save Our Springs Alliance on donations, volunteer programming at Barton Springs, marketing and incentive programs. 

In an intriguing paragraph of the memo, McNeeley notes that the department is working on a staffing model that would support a year-round aquatics system. “Of specific interest is establishing a staffing model appropriate for Barton Springs,” she writes. “The increased population in Austin, when combined with an increasing tourism rate, transforms Barton Springs Pool into more of a theme park environment than a local swimming hole.”

A spokesperson for the parks department explained that this does not mean the city would necessarily change how the pool is run, but that “additional full-time positions would allow for greater consistency and reliability in scheduling.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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