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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 ahead.

“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, layoffs.”

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 LifeCenter 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 year.

“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 difficult.”

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 Denton, 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 budget.)

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 up.

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 anymore.”

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 prevention.”

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 amenities.

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 in limbo.

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.