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Summer swimming stymied in Seattle, Tacoma by shortage of lifeguards, chlorine

Metro Parks Tacoma
A lifeguard oversees Stewart Heights Pool in Tacoma.

Metro Parks Tacoma is struggling to find workers to fully staff its aquatics program despite pay increases and other incentives, causing officials to worry that people will choose more dangerous options for swimming this summer.

The lack of qualified lifeguards and other employees means that the five pools that Metro Parks would normally open during the summer cannot open all at once because the program has to move the same group of employees between locations.

When the pandemic closures began in March and April of 2020, the aquatics program had 256 staff, said Jan Bretana, the supervisor of aquatics programs and facilities at Metro Parks Tacoma. Only 12 came back when the pools reopened. They now have roughly 55 people to keep watch over swimmers.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Bretana said. “I’ve had times where we built a new facility and we’re starting at ground zero, but never anything like this before.”

Anecdotally, reasons that the original staff didn’t come back varied, Bretana said. Some people found other work after the pool closure; others were on unemployment and doing all right.

To entice new lifeguards and swim instructors to join the team, Metro Parks increased pay from the minimum wage of $13.69 per hour to $15 and then $18 per hour. Those who agree to work at least 25 hours a week through the summer, ending around Labor Day, will receive an “incentive” of at least $500.

Until more people come on board, however, the same group of staffers rotates through the five open pools, meaning fewer opportunities to learn and practice swimming. Normally the five pools would be open seven days a week, but now each has reduced schedules. The two outdoor pools – big summer attractions for Pierce County families – are open only three or four days a week.

That’s a problem, particularly after more than a year without structured, monitored swim programs, Bretana said. Much like with academic schooling, people experience learning loss when it comes to swimming skills.

She’s also concerned that people will find other places to swim that may be less safe or unsupervised.

“If we don’t have the pools open, and we can’t meet the needs in a safe environment, where do people go? They go to the open water. They go to places that aren’t lifeguarded,” Bretana said. “So, we take it all very seriously and are really working hard to try to provide more opportunities for folks in a controlled environment that’s safe and where kids can learn to swim.”

The city of Seattle also experienced a shortage of lifeguards. In a July 7 press release, Seattle Parks and Recreation announced that Seward Park Beach would no longer have lifeguards because they couldn’t find enough qualified people.

“SPR had sufficient staffing to maintain 8 swimming beaches, but we are currently unable to do so due to a higher-than-normal staff attrition rate, as well as a higher percentage of inexperienced staff resulting from impacts from the pandemic last year when many aquatics facilities were closed, and most hiring was put on hold,” the press release reads.

If that wasn’t enough, a nationwide shortage of chlorine and a chlorine compound called sodium hypochlorite impacted some recreational water activities in the region as well as public water treatments.

King County was able to keep its aquatic center open but discontinued the use of the chemical hypochlorite for odor control and recycled water operations for a time. Both programs have since resumed.

In Seattle, SPR made sure that sprayparks and the four pools it’s operating this summer — two indoor, two outdoor — were unaffected. Wading pools, however, had to open on an alternating schedule. SPR plans to open the wading pools seven days a week when the chlorine supply is restored.

The department purchases chlorine from “all across the country, depending on availability,” according to a spokesperson.

Seattle Public Utilities released an update on July 14 saying that its chlorine supply had returned to normal, and that drinking water remained safe and good to drink throughout.

Tacoma’s pools were largely unaffected by the shortage because the programs had enough on hand to continue treating the water.

“We dodged a bullet on that one here at Metro Parks. We had filled our 500-gallon tanks for our outdoor pools prior to that hitting, so we were in good shape,” Bretana said.