A lifeguard chair sits empty at Simpkins Family Swim Center in Live Oak.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Santa Cruz faces low lifeguard numbers as pools, beaches struggle to keep aquatics programs afloat

Amid a national lifeguard shortage, Santa Cruz County pools and beaches find themselves struggling to find help during peak summer swimming season, though the pandemic’s ebb and hiring incentives have made a dent.

With summer in full swing, local pools and beaches are inviting Santa Cruz County residents and visitors into their waters, but a lack of available lifeguards has caused headaches across the region.

Louis Contreras, aquatics director at the Santa Cruz Boys & Girls Club, says a lack of lifeguards has been an issue for about a year. The club currently has three staff members certified to lifeguard: one official lifeguard and two other employees who are lifeguard-certified and able to step in while lifeguards are sparse.

The Boys & Girls Club also faces the issue of not being able to keep the pool open whenever it likes. With a capacity of 45, the club is forced to open the pool for 45 kids at a time for 30 minutes at a time, grouping kids by age instead of having the option to come and go as they please.

Along with hindering pool hours, Contreras says the lack of lifeguards also prevents the club from holding community programs such as lap swimming for older adults.

Administrative personnel such as Contreras have been forced to step in as lifeguards instead of doing their regular jobs. The club pays lifeguards a starting rate of $16.50 an hour, a low rate for a part-time job, says Contreras, which he speculates could be a factor in hiring.

Santa Cruz County public pools and Santa Cruz city beaches have experienced similar issues caused by a slow rebound in hiring after the pandemic, though officials with both say they have been able to fully staff their facilities for the summer.

A lifeguard tower at Cowell Beach.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The local shortage is part of a national trend. A spokesperson for the American Lifeguard Association told NPR in June that there is a lifeguard shortage affecting around one-third of pools around the United States.

In some cases, potential lifeguards aren’t able to afford the areas they could work in. A May CNN article cited rising housing costs in smaller coastal communities like Santa Cruz as being a big factor in lack of eager lifeguard candidates.

In other cases, the shortage has been caused by the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to loss of lifeguard training and lifeguard certification over two years. Local officials point to the pandemic as the primary source of the shortage in Santa Cruz County.

“The parks & recreation industry anticipated this and felt its inception in the summer of 2022 as many aquatic facilities were still recovering from complete closures during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Santa Cruz County Parks Department Deputy Director Rebecca Hurley told Lookout via email.

Beginning in 2020, there were no new hires due to Santa Cruz city beaches closing during lockdown, said Santa Cruz Fire Marine Safety Captain Brian Thomas.

In 2021, once beaches reopened, the hiring process for city beach lifeguards was slow. Thomas speculated that this might be because the typical ages of its lifeguards are 16 to 18 years old. Since lifeguards are considered first responders, the pandemic put lifeguards on the front lines, which might have made some question how comfortable they were with the position, he said.

In fall 2022, Simpkins Family Swim Center reduced its operating hours by completely closing on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; it was able to open fully again only in April, Hurley said.

Hurley said Simpkins found itself in a cycle of not having enough lifeguards, which forced the rest of the aquatics staff to take over as lifeguards instead of holding classes to train new lifeguards for certification.

“There was no way to get certified and then on top of that, their certifications were lapsing and then they would go get new work,” Hurley said. “So when the pool opened, we started with a low level of people.”

A lifeguard at Simpkins Family Swim Center
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In February, Simpkins created an incentive program that helped get the center out of its cycle of lifeguard-related issues. Newly hired lifeguards received an additional $500 on top of their regular wage after completing 300 hours at Simpkins.

During the time Simpkins cut back it operating hours, the staff also held for free lifeguard classes that would normally cost more $300 per person, allowing those who were previously interested but unable to afford the training an opportunity to pursue the job for no cost.

Simpkins’ incentive program had positive results, with the parks department hiring 36 new lifeguards since October.

These new lifeguards allowed Simpkins to return to its regular operating hours for summer 2023. Hurley said her department plans to use the abundance of coverage to support aquatics activities at Siltanen Family Swim Center in Scotts Valley and Harvey West Pool in Santa Cruz.

As for Santa Cruz city beaches, Thomas says the city hired 25 additional lifeguards in 2022, and today its beaches are fully staffed at 65 to 70 lifeguards. The city bumped up pay, which put the position at above minimum wage. It has since hired eight more lifeguards.

The issue now is lack of supervisors, Thomas says. In order to qualify as a marine safety officer, a person must be 18, have worked as a lifeguard for two years, and be an EMT. Because all current lifeguards are temporary, part-time employees, they are not able to gain the experience needed to be a marine safety officer. Thomas says city beaches currently have one but need two more.

Thomas’ goal is to hire more full-time lifeguards. “I want to train people to learn how to supervise and they can turn it into a career,” said Thomas.

A lifeguard tower at Cowell Beach.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)