Trying to stay afloat with a smaller staff

Workers: A shrinking pool of lifeguards has forced employers to offer incentives.

August 02, 1999|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

With modest pay and rigorous workouts, it's tough to find qualified lifeguards -- and even tougher to keep them all summer -- beach patrol officials say.

By mid-August, many lifeguards will quit their jobs to return to school, leaving parks, beaches and private pools struggling to keep full staffs in the waning weeks of summer.

"It's a lifelong problem for all clubs, and you just learn to regroup your people and hopefully keep your staff happy enough that they want to stay and help you get through it," said Kathy Angstadt, vice president of Padonia Park Club in Padonia.

For lifeguards who will work through the last three weeks of the season, Baltimore County's Department of Recreation and Parks is offering a bonus of $2 to $2.25 more an hour at the county's three beaches.

But Oregon Ridge lifeguard Sarah Ensor says she's headed back to Washington College in mid-August to work on her senior thesis.

"That's a little bit more important than a couple extra dollars," said Ensor, 20, of White Hall.

Having anticipated that many lifeguards will feel as Ensor does, the county will continue to hire new lifeguards who would be eligible for the bonus in addition to the standard pay of $7.54 an hour, said Bud Chrismer, manager of enterprise facilities for the recreation department.

"We're always looking for more people and better candidates," he said.

But the county is in a much better position this year than last, when it had to close Miami Beach Park because of too few lifeguards.

"I think we've managed to avoid the bullet," Chrismer said.

Rehoboth Beach, Del., and Ocean City didn't have the same kind of luck. Ocean City couldn't fill its 120 lifeguard posts until July 5, about three weeks later than usual, said 1st Lt. Skip Lee ofOcean City Beach Patrol.

"We met our need, but it took a lot longer this year," Lee said. "I had a lot of difficulty this time finding qualified people."

Although Rehoboth Beach officials managed to hire its typical staff of 42 lifeguards, they anticipate losing one-third to one-half by mid-

August, said Capt. Jate Walsh of Rehoboth Beach Patrol. When that happens, the patrol leaves parts of the beach unguarded, but posts signs telling swimmers to swim at their own risk.

"It's a shame, but it's the thing we're all stuck with," Walsh said.

To avoid being short-staffed next year, Ocean City Beach Patrol is conducting lifeguard tests next month instead of waiting until February as it normally does.

With pay ranging from $8.09 to $8.34 an hour, some lifeguards can't afford the high summer rents typical of the tourist-heavy beach town. Lee said some people accepted jobs but later declined them because they couldn't find affordable housing.

The number of Red Cross-certified lifeguards hasn't decreased. For the 1997-1998 season, the Red Cross certified 2,070 lifeguards in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Numbers for the current year have not been tallied, but the organization expects the count to be the same if not slightly higher, said Linnea Anderson, spokeswoman for the Red Cross' Central Maryland chapter.

Walsh in Rehoboth said some applicants are averse to the physical tests -- running a mile in the sand, swimming 600 yards, and rescuing a victim in 8-foot-deep water.

"We're trying to make this a much more respectable, professional job, and we are requiring so much more of our employees," he said. "And some kids have the `I want to sit out in the sun' mentality, and that's not the kind of person I want."

Rehoboth Beach lifeguard Joe Purzycki said he doesn't mind the tough workouts because they help him keep in shape.

"I know the training is really hard, the test was extremely hard, but I know it will pay off in the end," said the 17-year-old from Wilmington, Del.

Maryland state parks also are facing a lifeguard shortage, but for different reasons. Because of a funding cutback, the state Department of Natural Resources reduced the number of lifeguards at the state's 13 beaches and state parks. DNR hired 70 lifeguards this year, compared with 78 in 1998 and 92 in 1991.

With fewer lifeguards, state parks have reduced the number of guarded swimming areas, and have posted warning signs in unguarded areas, said Bill Simmons, the state's waterfront management specialist. Between 1992 and 1998, three drownings occurred at guarded swimming areas in state parks, and seven at unguarded areas.

"There's been a change in ... philosophy to make our customers more responsible for their own actions," he said.

Pub Date: 8/02/99

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