Layoffs. Salary freezes. Expansion plans derailed. Aquatics operators are dealing with it all in light of the current economic downturn. Refusing to sacrifice safety, many facility managers are being forced to get creative when it comes to ensuring the well-being of aquatics patrons.
Cutting back on front-line staff is the least desirable option to
save money, according to many of the operators interviewed for this
story. But they also say it may be a difficult reality. And an
Aquatics International online poll confirms it. More than
30 percent of respondents say their facilities are operating with
annual losses, and more than 50 percent feel at least some pressure
to reverse that downward trend. To get there, many positions are
being combined, frozen or eliminated.
That’s the case for David Bucher, recreation supervisor for
the city of Tempe, Ariz. In the short-term, Bucher is considering
scaling back operating hours at some of his pools in an effort to
satisfy bosses who want additional belt tightening. But looking
ahead, Bucher knows he may actually have to cut his summer pool
season — from an almost three-month-long program to one that
lasts only six or seven weeks. More drastic changes may lie
“We’re looking at potentially eliminating up to 200
positions over the next 12 to 18 months,” Bucher says.
“That will be done with hiring freezes, retirements, filling
internal positions with existing employees who
were displaced in the work force, and then, finally,
Other aquatics operators have indicated that when layoffs are
unavoidable, office workers and nonessential employees may be the
first to go. The remaining staffers may be asked to do more, as is
the case at Maryland Athletic Club and Mac at Harbor
East, two high-end fitness centers in the Baltimore area.
“Obviously, we’re mandated as to how many guards per
body we have to have on staff at all times,” says Ann Shaw,
director of aquatics at the two facilities. “Because
we’re a private, high-end club, it’s never an option
for us to just close a pool because we don’t have enough
staff. We have to figure out a way to keep the pools open —
and if that means a director needs to get in a chair, then he or
she does that.”
Shaw says it hasn’t yet come to that. She’s seeking
other money-saving options, such as hiring less-experienced
lifeguards. Additional training offsets risk, she argues.
Jim Clark, assistant general manager of Ohio’s privately run
Plus fitness facility, also sees a benefit in hiring younger
guards. He and his staff must put more effort into training these
employees, but Clark says the advantage is that they’re
learning on his turf. “We find that we get them looking at
the things that are particular to our facility early on because we
train at our locations,” he notes.
Ohio’s minimum wage recently rose from $7 to $7.30 an hour,
which is a further strain on Clark, who has some beginner guards
starting at that government-mandated rate. In this economy, people
who would have previously applied for aquatics positions are
increasingly looking for part-time jobs at McDonald’s and
other minimum-wage jobs that provide benefits such as free meals,
Clark says. Knowing that his staff quality would improve,
he’s pushing for lifeguard raises to the $8 level —
though there’s no movement on that currently.
Many survey respondents also indicate that they’re waiting
for a green light on lifeguard raises, but nearly 50 percent report
that hourly salaries for lifeguard staff will not rise this
“The most important asset for guards is their brains and we
really have a ‘brain-drain’ in the guarding
community,” Clark says. “I’m trying to replace
young, sharp people with less-experienced people, but they
don’t have longevity.”
Clark says he’s working on recruiting staffers who are a bit
older than the usual high school/college crowd, specifically naming
young “stay-at-home” moms as his new target
demographic. Also on his radar are home-schoolers, who seem to
segue easily into management. “I found home-schoolers to be
some of the best guards I ever had,” he says.
“They’re used to working on their own. They have
flexible time schedules.”
But the real challenge is holding onto good people. Trouble is,
they are the ones who can find other jobs the easiest, says Tom
Lachocki, CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation in Colorado Springs,
Colo. “[Among] the things that help retain good people is
helping them understand what is expected of them and giving them
the tools to accomplish that,” Lachocki says. “When
budgets are cut, the second part becomes more
Lachocki stresses the importance of reminding employees that their
advancement is a priority, and when the economy improves, that
issue will be brought to the forefront.
Increasingly, the battle to retain employees is a two-front war,
with managers being forced to convince bosses of the necessity of
specific workers, as well as appeasing existing staff.
Every time John Whitmore, recreation superintendent for the city of
Texas, loses an employee to attrition or dismissal, he must
defend refilling the position to his supervisors.
“Because we can justify most of our positions as essential
for safety, we can get those pushed through,” Whitmore says.
“Some of our other positions are office-level positions
— cashiers and gate attendants — those we have to do a
much harder justification on.”
Many operators can’t fill vacant positions. The solution for
Elise Knox, aquatics manager of The Colony Aquatics Park in Texas, is a
compromise. When a full-time staffer leaves, she says,
“We’re more likely to end up with part-time positions
that you don’t have to pay benefits on.”
With positions being combined and eliminated, the question of
employee raises brings chuckles from aquatics professionals. Shaw
says her directors — the ones doing double-duty in the office
and on the front line — are not being rewarded with
raises. (She’s being forced to slash 5- to 10 percent of her
While many of the survey respondents report receiving
cost-of-living increases last year, most do not expect such bumps
in 2009. (The good news is that if there’s an absence of
raises, there also is an absence of salary cuts, according to the
survey.) Whitmore says his part-time seasonal staff, such as loyal
college students, are not being offered raises either.
Bucher isn’t offering bonuses to Tempe’s guards, but he
believes the scarcity of part-time jobs ensures there won’t
be a dearth of good people filling out his applications.
Unlike Clark, who thinks potential guards could be wooed by other
part-time employers, Bucher believes he has the upper hand.
“We’re hoping with the economic downturn, there’s
going to be a surplus of lifeguards looking for work because some
of the other part-time opportunities will be taken by people who
lost their jobs,” Bucher says.
That would be a change because, he says, “It’s always
been a struggle to find lifeguards [in the past].”
Whitmore seconds that notion, saying, “If I
couldn’t give raises, this may be the best years to [not
provide them].” He also says his city will put more effort
into recruitment in case the pool of lifeguard applicants dries
In Oakland, Calif., opportunities for young guards are
shrinking. Jim Wheeler, the city’s marine and aquatics sports
supervisor, will be forced to hire fewer guards this summer.
He’s moving some to more-utilized pools, but is dealing with
a struggling city in a state suffering a budget meltdown.
“I gave away about 25 percent of my budget for part-time
employees, which includes lifeguards, in this first round of budget
cuts,” Wheeler says. “We’re not sure how much
more we can do without actually reducing programs and closing
facilities. We decided not to operate two high school pools.
We’re not going to take care of city facilities and programs
[like before]; we don’t have the luxury to do that
Cutting things such as aquatics classes and laying off extraneous
employees, including directors or supervisors, is preferable to
closing any more pools, Wheeler says. “We’d like to not
compromise safety and keep service delivery intact. We’re
really trying to keep front-line service and programs because in
Oakland those services are vital to crime and violence
For many, it’s just about staying afloat.
Lachocki says priority No. 1 for many operators is complying with
the Virginia Graeme
Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. Expansions, upgrades and
renovations are not on the horizon for most facilities unless
they’re absolutely necessary for safety. More than 50 percent
of respondents say their facilities are not considering new
Craig Barker, mayor of Destin, a resort town in Florida’s Panhandle,
echoes that idea: “We have put all new capital facilities on
hold.” Clark mentions an expansion plan to LifeCenter Plus
that would have added a homeopathic health center and hotel now is
Prior ballot decisions and bond sales have allowed some projects to
move forward — Oakland is starting work on a $17 million
aquatics center. Wheeler says the timing works in his favor because
construction costs are low compared with what they were.
Bucher also is looking on the bright side. Of any potential
renovations, he says, “They’re gone.” But, he
adds, “Whether there’s a positive economy or a negative
economy, it always presents opportunity. In a positive environment,
sometimes you don’t analyze where you are financially and so
you might [overspend on projects]. But in this environment,
we’re happy to take a very hard look at things that
don’t pencil out.”
It’s not just large-scale projects that deserve a heavy edit.
“These types of economic circumstances do present
opportunities for aquatics professionals because we all have
programs we’d love to get rid of,” Bucher says.
He is speaking of nonessential services and features that
don’t relate to the safety of pool patrons. The programs that
keep swimmers alive are, at least for now, recession-proof.