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When the General Motors plant in Moraine, Ohio, closed at the end of 2008, it was a significant blow to the community of roughly 7,000. Approximately 1,000 individuals, along with a number of others employed by ancillary businesses, were out of work. It’s now more than one year later now and even those who weren’t employed by GM are still feeling the strain. The resulting loss in tax revenue left city leaders with a $5.5 million deficit for fiscal year 2010. As a result, nearly 200 city jobs were cut — and Splash Moraine, the community waterpark, will be closed for the summer.

Splash Moraine would have celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. Attractions include a 20,000- square-foot wave pool, several water slides, a lazy river and a children’s area. Built at a cost of $3.7 million, average annual attendance was close to 70,000. 

With no aquatics facilities open this year, Director of Parks and Recreation Dave Miller was forced to lay off his three full-time aquatics managers. “Two were near the five-year mark and my aquatics superintendent had been here more than 20 years,” Miller says of the loss.

Of course, Moraine isn’t the only city facing this kind of situation. As the nation has weathered one of the worst economic downturns in its history, many other communities are treading the same waters as Moraine and, as a result, many aquatics professionals are still struggling to stay afloat.

To find out just how directly those in the industry are being affected by the recession, we surveyed 811 readers in December 2009. While there’s some good news to report, 67 percent of respondents say their operations have been directly affected by budget cuts and, based on other responses, it’s clear that many are still waiting for economic recovery. Here’s a closer look.

By the numbers

While 84 percent of respondents report full-time employment, 2 percent say they are unemployed and 10 percent report that they are under-employed.

Clearly, hiring appears to have slowed. In a 2008 survey of Aquatics International readers, 11 percent expected the number of staffers hired for 2009 to decrease compared with 2008. In 2009, 14 percent expect to hire fewer employees for 2010 than in 2009. In both surveys, the majority (more than 65 percent) expect the number of staff members to remain the same.

Like Miller, Larry Stanley is not among that 65 percent. “Budget cuts have impacted our aquatics program a great deal,” says Stanley, who oversees aquatics at the Gifford Aquatic Center in Indian River County, Fla. “I had to let my entire staff go and become seasonal. … I had 13 [full-time] employees on staff and now I am the only one left.  Due to the budget cuts I can only hire staff to work for six months [to prevent them from becoming eligible for any benefits].”

When it comes to benefits such as salaries, 30 percent of survey respondents  expect their salaries to increase for fiscal year 2010. The majority (65 percent) expect their salaries to remain the same, and the other 6 percent expect a decrease in pay.

Based on a comparison of data from the 2008 and 2009 surveys, it appears expectations remain static for first-year lifeguards. Their average salary for 2010 remains virtually unchanged. The majority, approximately 60 percent, are earning between $7 and $8.99 an hour. Fewer than 10 percent earn less than that, and the other 30 percent are receiving $9 or more an hour.

Aquatics managers are faring better. Most are earning between $20 and $26 per hour, and nearly 40 percent of survey respondents say their salaries increased in 2009. Fewer (almost 30 percent) expect to see a raise in 2010.

Several factors are likely impacting staffing and salary decisions at aquatics facilities, says Marcia Calicchia, a faculty member at the Cornell University ILR School. First, many government agencies were already strained when the current recession began, meaning some agencies already were operating on smaller staffing budgets.

Organized labor is a second factor.

Though there are no unions specific to aquatics, a significant portion of the public sector work force is unionized. According to a recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, based on 2009 data, more public sector employees (7.9 million) belong to a union than do private sector employees (7.4 million).

On the job

So what about job satisfaction? For the most part, for survey respondents, the result has been an increase in stress and anxiety.

More than half (55 percent) say they are experiencing increased stress levels due to changes in workloads, perhaps because of fewer seasonal hires, reduced work hours, or taking on additional job responsibilities as a result of layoffs.

Prof. Calicchia says that’s typical, particularly among those in leadership roles. “The effect on the supervisors can be huge,” she explains. Often the added stress magnifies weaknesses. For example an already slightly anxious manager faced with added stress might suddenly begin experiencing trouble sleeping.

Burnout and concern over how a loss of services will impact the patrons — children left with no safe place to cool off in the summer, for example — also may be common.

Dawn Willemsen, aquatics director of The Club at Ricochet in South Plainfield, N.J., is one aquatics professional who has been feeling the strain. To cut staffing costs, Willemsen has had to reduce the number of aquatics classes offered by consolidating some of the smaller groups. She’s also had to take on more teaching responsibilities herself, which means less time for management and other duties.

“It’s definitely a lot harder as a manager now,” she says. “My time has been crunched in every single way.”

One factor that’s almost certainly contributing to the increased stress levels is concern over job security. Nearly 40 percent of survey respondents are feeling greater anxiety over their own job security, and 46 percent note anxiety among their staffs.

David Bucher, recreation supervisor for the city of Tempe, Ariz., understands that firsthand. Falling sales tax revenue has left his city with a $30 million shortfall and, as a result, Bucher says his department may see some “draconian” cutbacks. Last year nearly 10 positions were eliminated and aquatic services have been reduced. The city council has yet to approve a budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year, and Bucher says the anxiety over job security led one of his full-time employees to consider leaving for a part-time position with more of a guarantee.

In the end, Bucher says, “all you can do is control what you can control. I know there will be some semblance of an aquatics program in the future … and we still have a commitment to serve and provide a high level of programs and services to the people who depend on us.”