Hamilton’s outdoor pools set to open on June 30 – on time and fully booked – due to a shortage of national lifeguards

As school winds down and the weather warms, Hamilton’s outdoor pools are set to reopen next week, unaffected by a shortage of lifeguards plaguing other Ontario cities.

As of Friday, the city had “hired enough staff to support current planned summer programs.” This includes outdoor pools and wading pools, Camp Kidaca, Supie — the city’s walk-in recreation programs — and free fitness programs.

That includes recruiting 88% of its 240 part-time summer lifeguards, Laura Kerr, program development manager with the city’s recreation department, said in an email Friday.

A shortage of lifeguards has emerged in the wake of the pandemic, forcing cities like Toronto to cancel swimming programs and reduce supervised beach hours.

Hamilton’s director of recreation operations, Julie Matson, said the city “expects challenges” in hiring summer staff and opened a second recruitment period in the spring.

“While this has successfully helped recruit other qualified individuals, our workforce and programming are still not fully restored to pre-pandemic levels,” she said.

As walk-in water sports, such as open and lap swimming and in-water fitness, operate at 100% capacity, registered swim programs have taken a hit.

The city is only offering 65% of its swimming lesson programming compared to pre-pandemic levels – compared to 58% in the spring – which means there are about 400 fewer programs and lessons than during a typical summer.

Classes are 80% full, the highest demand for early childhood swim programs.

Meanwhile, the YMCA of Hamilton-Burlington-Brantford (HBB) is still looking to hire 75 full-time and part-time lifeguards. Typically, the organization’s local branch would hire between 160 and 180 lifeguards, “depending on demand,” spokeswoman Kyla Kumar said.

“It was a challenge that already existed before the pandemic,” she told The Spectator. “It’s been really exacerbated by the pandemic.”

The YMCA provides between 50 and 75 percent of its swimming lessons, depending on the branch. Kumar said the goal is to increase capacity as they hire more staff.

On its website, Wild Waterworks said the water park will “adjust operations this year” due to a staff shortage, only opening Wednesday through Sunday.

“The pandemic has meant two years of very little lifeguard training and expiring certifications,” Sara Kinnear, director of Wild Waterworks, said in the statement. “Lifeguards are in short supply to start the summer, which is impacting many facilities.”

The park opens Wednesday.

YMCA lifeguards earn between $15 and $18 an hour, depending on the position and shift. The starting hourly wage for a municipal lifeguard is around $26, nearly $10 more than a lifeguard in Toronto.

Kumar said the “main demographic” for lifeguards is students, which means it’s a high-turnover industry.

The pandemic has affected the pipeline of lifeguards as certification programs have been canceled, delaying one or more cohorts of new lifeguards.

Now the city and YMCA are expanding certification programs to try to get more chair guards.

Kumar said before the pandemic, the YMCA would host seasonal certification in the fall and winter. For “at least next year” they plan to run them all year round.

“We had extremely high demand for these programs; and all of them have been full,” she said.

The city offered nine 40-hour National Lifeguard certification courses between February and June — up from about five before the pandemic — as well as seven instructional training programs.

“This increase allowed us to increase training seats to 112 candidates for both programs combined,” Kerr said.

Nine outdoor pools across the city are set to reopen on June 30. The Parkdale Pool, part of an eastern recreation center under construction, will reopen later this summer.

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