It’s Tough to Become a Lifeguard in New York City
Good morning. It’s the final Monday of August. With summer pool season nearing its end, we consider the reasons for the city’s lifeguard shortage. And we take a quick look at the U.S. Open, which starts in Queens today.
Credit…Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times
Across the country, this has been the summer of the lifeguard shortage, with public pools having to trim their hours, slash programs and, in some cases, close entirely. New York has hardly been immune. But the city’s requirements for lifeguards may be adding an extra layer to its staffing issues. I asked my colleague Hurubie Meko, who has been following the lifeguard story all summer, to explain.
Before we get into the city, let’s start with the national lifeguard shortage. How does what’s happening here reflect the situation across the country?
It’s pretty widely felt that pools and beaches just are not able to hire the same number of lifeguards that they have in the past.
The reasons for that vary. In some cases, it’s a pay issue, where wages aren’t high enough in a competitive job market. In some cases, pools were closed during the pandemic, and people just found other jobs, and those other jobs were often more stable or paid better.
Either way, people found other employment. That led many places to increase pay. At the start of the summer, New York City didn’t, but eventually, it raised wages in July. But by that point, it only had about half the lifeguards it needed for the public pools and city-run beaches.
Former and current city lifeguards all told me that there was one other issue: The requirements to become a lifeguard are just harder for New York City pools than in other areas. So people started to get jobs in other places.
How tough are these requirements?
You have to take a qualifying test, and you have to swim 50 yards — that’s nearly the length of an Olympic-size pool — in 35 seconds or less. Then, if you’re a new recruit, you go through a 16-week training program, and you have different certifications you have to obtain, like CPR.
That seems fast! I was a competitive swimmer for a while, and I might have met that when I was training more regularly, but I don’t know if I could pass now.
Oh, I absolutely wouldn’t pass the test. But lifeguards told me that while it is a challenging test, if you’re a competitive swimmer, it wouldn’t be too hard. Still, this year, 900 applicants took the test, and about 26 percent passed.
So this could be harder, but it could be easier, too?
The city’s lifeguard requirements are similar to the ones at state-run beaches in Long Island, but the state sets an easier requirement for its pools.
If you’re trying to rescue someone at a beach, you’re often going through harsher waters, waves and currents. Some lifeguards are arguing that the restrictions and tests should be changed to make it easier to hire at the city’s public pools, where you need a different set of skills.
What does this look like at the pools?
I went to a pool in Williamsburg, and half the pool was cordoned off. Nobody was swimming in that side at all. And in the other half, you have kids and their parents just kind of swimming about, and then a separate area for lap swimmers.
The lap swimmers were telling me that the beginning of the summer, they were shoved into that one space too. So you had people trying to do their workouts, navigating around children playing or other people trying to cool off. And meanwhile, you have major sections of the pool that are empty, with plenty of space, but totally closed off.
It’s almost the end of the summer, and you’ve written a few stories about the lifeguard shortage. Does this feel like a one-time issue? Or is this the start of a long-term problem?
This is not new. Lifeguards have said the conditions have been trending toward a shortage for years, and not just in New York. Here, the city is trying to figure out how best to address the issue, whether with pay increases or changing requirements or even adjusting programs so you have a new pipeline of younger swimmers interested in becoming lifeguards.
But it’s unclear how easy that will be, and how much time it will take to implement all of these changes to the point where you get to a robust enough number of new lifeguards.
Expect a mostly cloudy day gradually turning sunny, with temperatures near the mid-80s. At night, temps will be around the mid-70s.
In effect until Monday (Labor Day).
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The U.S. Open
For the next two weeks, the eyes of the elite tennis world will be on New York. The United States Open — one of the four major tournaments in the sport — starts today at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, a complex inside Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.
Even for those who don’t flock to the world-class tennis complex, the tournament is something of a cultural phenomenon. At a time when New York often slows down, the U.S. Open draws late-summer crowds to the 7 train and the Long Island Rail Road. Celebrities travel to the city to watch high-profile matches. Many sports fans will also stop along the way in nearby Flushing and Corona to grab a bite or a drink, though some in those neighborhoods have argued that the economic benefits do not outweigh the disruptions.
My colleagues in Sports will be covering what happens on the courts extensively. This year’s tournament has drawn extensive interest from outside the usual circles because of the expected retirement of Serena Williams after it ends. Ms. Williams won her first major singles title at the U.S. Open in 1999; this year’s contest will be her 21st.
But well before Ms. Williams kicked off her storied career, a young Black woman from Harlem named Althea Gibson helped to pave the way. In 1950, Ms. Gibson became the first Black person to compete in the U.S. Open. Seven years later, she would become the first Black player to win that tournament, which at the time was held at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens.
As Sally H. Jacobs wrote in a story for The Times, Ms. Gibson broke the color barrier in tennis, but her contributions had often been overlooked. This year, about 65 years after her groundbreaking victory, she will receive some greater attention.
On Thursday, which would have been her 95th birthday, the block of West 143rd Street in Harlem where she grew up will be renamed Althea Gibson Way in her honor. At some point in the future, a life-size statue of a teenage Althea is slated to be erected nearby. That same day, Ms. Gibson will be honored in a program at the U.S. Open itself.
Well before Ms. Gibson made it to the majors, her tennis journey started in the city’s homegrown scene, first on the street in Harlem and then at a tennis club for Black residents nearby.
That tradition in some sense still continues today. My colleague Corey Kilgannon wrote about one such community at Lincoln Terrace Park in Brooklyn, where players, most of them Black, have been playing tennis for decades.
The facilities are outdated, and the constant racket of passing subway trains can be distracting during intense matches. Still, the courts have become a neighborhood gathering spot, especially for the West Indian population in nearby Crown Heights and Brownsville.
Take the train
If you’re planning to check out the action at the U.S. Open, city officials and organizers strongly recommend that you take public transit. The tournament always leads to increased traffic in the area, but keep in mind that the Mets, who play at nearby Citi Field, will also be in town for the first week of matches.
The morning hour
I like waking up before the chain-smoker who lives two floors below me. Sipping coffee, I hear birds planning their day, watch the sunrise reflected in the highest buildings on Central Park South and breathe the freshest air of my day.
I often wish the morning hour would last longer, just that first one after I wake up. Serene as it is, a lot takes shape in that time.
Birdsong is the first sound to greet me. It is spring as I write this. The race to find a companion, build that fragile home of twigs, is in full swing.
Those noisy efforts, in that hour before dawn, almost drown out the city’s yawning wakefulness. Almost.
The birds work at the same frenzied pace throughout the day — truly dawn ’til dusk. But once the city wakes, its machinations drown out their spring fever.
The real early birds catching worms are outfitted with yellow safety vests, hard hats, tool belts. Calloused palms savor coffee and that first cigarette before clocking in, climbing down, or up, into the defined roles offered by vertical New York.
Lingering over that second cup, I think-write letters I’ll never send, some so heartfelt and hopeful I’m sure my intentions will make an impact. Once I’m up and out the door, the next 14 hours will speed by, my efforts to be a useful participant in city life often successful.
Night arrives gradually, punctuated by intermittent sirens, the occasional car alarm, a cranky pedestrian trumpeting a grudge.
Traffic wanes, and the city settles. I settle, too, grateful for another day here.
— Meg Winslow
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together. Matthew Haag will be here tomorrow. — M.G.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.
Melissa Guerrero and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected]