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Lifeguard Shortage Poses Problems For Peoria-Area Park Districts

210528 Gwynn Aquatic Center 1.jpg
Joe Deacon
Peoria Park District Executive Director Emily Cahill said unless the district can get 12-14 more lifeguards before the targeted June 7 opening, the Gwynn Family Aquatic Center will remain closed.

Peoria-area park districts are facing a specific challenge as public pools start to open for the first time in more than a year: Not enough lifeguards.

Peoria Park District Executive Director Emily Cahill said unless the department can get 12-14 more lifeguards before the targeted June 7 opening, the Gwynn Family Aquatic Center will remain closed.

210528 Gwynn Aquatic Center 2.jpg
Joe Deacon
The Peoria Park District's Gwynn Family Aquatic Center.

“We are about 30% of what we need to open all of our pool system,” said Cahill. “We anticipate that, obviously, the Riverplex indoor pool will continue to operate as is. But we will only be able to open one of our two outdoor pools.”

With the COVID-19 keeping outdoor public pools shuttered last summer, park districts have been eager to end the long layoff.

“Last year just didn't feel right; it was a very, very tough decision, still even hard to talk about,” said Washington Park District Executive Director Brian Tibbs. “We're excited that we'll be able to open it and offer that for the community again.”

But Tibbs admitted the worker shortage has made it tougher than he expected.

“We're about one-third down. We normally have about 30 on staff; we have around 20 and still looking to get a few more and offer training for them,” said Tibbs. “There are several training classes coming up. We said that if they are certified, we will hire them. Once they pass the test and get the license, we will give them a job.”

Morton Park District Executive Director Joel Dickerson said his department also has seen a drop-off in lifeguard applicants, but is actually in pretty good shape.

“We typically have in the range of 85-95% retention rate with our summer seasonal employees at the pool,” said Dickerson. “We were looking at about 50% retention going into this year. However, we were able to hire enough employees to be able to get opened up and ready to go.”

Cahill said the Peoria Park District is trying to balance safety with patrons' needs, and is looking into offering alternative recreational options.

“Actually this summer, we are piloting some mobile recreation programming we’re calling ‘PPD On the Go,’ where we take park district programs to neighborhood parks and let people see all the things that we offer in our static locations,” she said.

“So we are taking that programming to the people. We anticipate that if we can't open both pools, that we would try to look at some activity that that would be recreational in nature and go into parks that are specifically in the neighborhoods where we know those folks are relying on outdoor pools and do programming there, try to increase the frequency.”

Cahill said the district has ramped up lifeguard recruitment efforts, and is conducting a three-day lifeguard training class next week.

“We are looking at starting earlier with kids, working with local schools to get kids in the pipeline faster to build their swimming skills faster so that they are when they're ready to work, they are interested in being lifeguards,” she said, noting they also welcome retirees as lifeguards.

“We have increased our hourly rate and are paying $13 an hour. We are looking at flexible scheduling options. We are even offering a bonus for lifeguards to make it through the 10-week season. Honestly, I'm not sure what else we can do.”

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