As New York City’s 14 miles of public beaches open for Memorial Day weekend, the city is facing its worst lifeguard shortage on record — something officials say is partly due to a combination of the city and little-known but extraordinarily powerful unions. The result is a bitter fight between represent lifeguards.
Millions of New Yorkers are facing the prospect of partial beach closures and limited access to pools when they open next month. Parks Department officials say they currently have fewer than 500 lifeguards ready to work, which they say is about a third of the number needed to fully staff beaches and pools.
The lifeguard shortage, which stems from perennial issues like low pay, a tough qualifying exam and a pandemic-induced slowdown of the lifeguard pipeline, follows months of off-season wrangling between city officials and an obscure pair of lifeguard locals Is.
It’s an irreverent and bizarre union beef that stands out even in a city crowded with them and one that has left the city – locked in collective bargaining talks with union officials to reach a new contract – prime swimming destinations. Blaming the unions for leaving.
Unions have had a checkered past, beset by scandalous headlines, investigations and damning government reports. But they effectively control all lifeguard operations, determining who is eligible to work each summer.
Lifeguard coverage is important in New York City, where beaches and pools are the only sources of respite for crowds of often inexperienced swimmers from hot neighborhoods with few public swimming resources.
The inability to swim and dangerous surf can be a deadly combination, especially in places like the Rockaways, whose beaches have dangerous rip currents that often prove fatal, especially after lifeguards go off-duty in the evening hours .
Last summer, amid a nationwide lifeguard shortage, the city had 529 guards by the time public outdoor pools opened in late June, but it continued to certify lifeguards to bring that number up to 900 by early July.
Park officials said there are only 480 lifeguards so far this year, including 280 returning guards and 200 new recruits. They’re scrambling to add more before the pool opens.
In 2016, by comparison, the city hired about 1,500 lifeguards. Even in 2021, there were just over 1,000.
Park officials said they would still be able to cover the normal eight-hour days at the pools and beaches, and they expected a late return of lifeguards in early July, when summer crowds begin to peak . But swimmers can expect a partial closure.
To speed up recruiting for this summer, park officials rolled out incentives such as pay raises and retention bonuses, and relaxed the notoriously difficult swim test. Advertisements were placed in public high schools, job fairs and bus shelters.
Two city officials, who requested anonymity to discuss the private conversation, said their recruiting efforts were met with obstructionist tactics by union leaders, who canceled meetings and communicated primarily by fax. Emphasis on communication.
But District Council 37 spokeswoman Thea Seterbo disputed the city’s negative claims.
He said lifeguard totals — minus the national shortfall and not affected by any labor attrition — will surpass last year’s numbers within weeks, especially as students are certified.
“Our members have a common goal, to keep beach workers and the public safe,” she said. “The fact that we have had no drowning incidents for eight years is a testament that our lifeguards are doing their job efficiently and maintaining the safety standards that have been in place for decades.”
The shortage has provided oxygen to perennial union critics and their enduring claim that union leaders manage lifeguard operations based on favoritism and vendetta.
One of them, Janet Fash, 63, a longtime chief lifeguard in the Rockaways, said union leaders had a unique gatekeeper role that helped keep them in power.
“It’s a shame the union has so much stranglehold over the whole operation,” Ms Fush said. “It sucks. They make it so difficult for people to authenticate that the lifeguards get frustrated and just walk away.
Ms Fash said: “As long as the lifeguard school is run by the union, who use it to maintain their power and as a tool of retaliation, you will lack.”
Although the lifeguard program falls under the jurisdiction of the parks, it has long been run almost autonomously by the leaders of two locales: Local 461 for rank-and-file lifeguards and Local 508 for supervisors.
Locals, who are part of District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal association, wield the power to train, certify, and even assign and supervise lifeguards.
Henry A. Garrido, executive director of District Council 37, dismissed Ms Fush’s criticism as the boasting of a disgruntled dissident.
He commended the leadership of the union and said that a major reason for the problem was that park officials had their “worst year” in bringing back guards from previous years due to pay issues.
By the time some contractual matters were resolved and park officials announced lifeguard increases in early April—the hourly wage for new lifeguards increased from $16.10 to $21.26 for occupants in mid-August. Many returning guards had already begun looking for higher-paying jobs at beaches and pools outside the city — along with the $1,000 bonus, Mr. Garrido said.
“Before Covid, you would have had 500 lifeguards returning,” he said. “This year, you have about half that.”
When asked about the unions, a spokeswoman for the park would not comment on the record. But in a statement, the agency’s first deputy commissioner Iris Rodriguez-Rosa noted its “extensive recruiting effort” and said it is “doing everything we can to bring on new lifeguards.”
Relations between the unions and the city have long been poor. But park officials’ efforts to exert more control over some aspects of operations seem to have worsened an already rocky working relationship, leaving the city with 1,400 lifeguard staff to staff beaches and pools that fall far short of their goal. There is a possibility.
The idea of a powerful lifeguard union may seem strange with the job’s place in the public imagination: a grotesque image of teens in swimsuits working for pocket money and time to surf. But the city’s local leaders run a tough operation.
Unions have been under investigation for years by the city’s comptroller and public advocate, who detailed a culture of corruption based partly on a month-long undercover investigation at a lifeguard school in 1994.
In 2021, the city’s Department of Investigation found that “the lifeguard division’s structure, history and culture reveal systemic dysfunction in its management and accountability.”
At its center is enigmatic union boss Peter Stein, who heads the supervisors’ union but also controls the lifeguard local.
Mr. Stein, who did not respond to requests for comment, survived decades of headlines, scandals and investigations over union supervision, training and hiring.
A 2020 New York Magazine article, which director Darren Aronofsky’s production company is now adapting into a television series, described the union’s history as “Tammany Hall by the Sea”, with Mr. Stein calling it “preservation’s playbook”. Drove things by. Power brokering, and intimidation.
Two city officials said the city began trying in November to bring union officials to the table to discuss contracts, including hiring issues. But the union repeatedly agreed to cancel meetings, finally sitting down to negotiate on January 12, according to officials. Officials said the union also delayed re-certifying lifeguards.
This shortfall has thwarted the park authorities’ efforts to streamline the certification process, which has come under criticism.
Park officials sought to get more new guards this summer by simplifying the rigorous testing potential lifeguards undergo to qualify for a 16-week, 40-hour training course.
The test largely weeded out many potential recruits via a 50-yard swim, which historically was expected to be finished in 35 seconds.
Faced with a high failure rate — last year, out of 900 applicants, only 26 percent passed the test — and complaints from applicants, park officials this summer extended the allowable time for applicants to 45 seconds.
He also mandated that applicants be informed of their swim times, pushing for more transparency as opposed to simply passing or failing.
Howard Carswell, a former rescue diver with the city’s police department, said his 16-year-old son, a competitive swimmer, dropped out of lifeguard training this year because the officers overseeing it “usually give kids trying to get certified.” were “a difficult time.”
He said his son had opted to spend the summer lifesaving at an upper lake for better pay.
“It wasn’t worth the hike,” he said. “It was a generally depressing environment for kids who want to be New York City lifeguards.”