- - Tuesday, August 6, 2019



As D.C. temperatures remain in or near the 90s, the city announced that it will open numerous cooling stations to help residents who lack air conditioning get out of the heat and avoid heat-related illnesses.

Unfortunately, the steps taken to keep people cool do not include keeping the city’s swimming pools open. Last year, the majority of the public pools closed in mid-August and none remained open beyond Labor Day despite the fact that September has more than its share of 90-degree days.

Washington closes its pools early mainly because it has difficulty finding enough qualified lifeguards this late in the season. While it may be tempting to throw up our hands and assume this is intractable, some creative compensation might mitigate it.

The lifeguard shortage has been a problem for a while. At the pools we frequent, we often had one lifeguard in places where there had previously been two or three lifeguards on duty a couple years ago. Sometimes the person checking IDs of people entering the pool would be pressed into lifeguarding, and occasionally a supervisor would take a shift. More than once this summer, the hourly 15-minute rest break for kids was stretched to 30 minutes because of this shortage.

The problem becomes more acute in August, as lifeguards go off to college or start participating in fall sports that conflict with lifeguarding.

In an economy where the unemployment rate is low and motivated students (which describes almost all D.C. lifeguards) are increasingly inclined to forego work, it is easy to understand why recruiting sufficient numbers of lifeguards is difficult.

While one obvious solution would be to simply increase the hourly pay of lifeguards, that might not be cost-effective for the D.C Department of Parks and Recreation. The agency only has so much money available, and paying lifeguards a higher wage all year to keep a few pools open for a few more weeks would limit its ability to offer other services to residents.

However, the city might consider taking a page from the playbook of other summer employers and reward its employees for sticking around. For instance, it could offer a premium to lifeguards who agree to work after mid-August, either as a bonus to those who work for three entire months or else a weekly bonus for those who work at least 30 hours in a week after mid-August.

The latter scheme might make it feasible to recruit lifeguards from Howard University, which is literally across the street from Banneker Pool, or the other colleges in town.

The lifeguard shortage is becoming problematic — besides the necessity of closing several pools weeks before the high temperature abates or D.C. schools open, those that remained open have been increasingly forced to go shorthanded in the last weeks of summer.

Safety is an issue, too. Last year, a 7-year-old girl was pulled unconscious from the Langdon Park Pool, and some allege that the pool did not have sufficient lifeguards on duty.

Since we’ve been frequenting the city’s pools, I have been uniformly impressed with the caliber of the lifeguarding. The dedication and attentiveness is markedly above those in the other communities where I have lived.

However, we would all benefit — both the children as well as people who need a respite during the dog days of summer — if we can figure out a cost-effective way to staff more lifeguards and lengthen the swimming season. 

Ike Brannon is a senior fellow at the Jack Kemp Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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