In answer to the number-one problem facing aquatics facilities, the City of Phoenix established an ambitious financial incentive program.

To lure staff of all types to the agency’s pools, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department gave aquatics employees a $500 bonus in their first paychecks. But that’s not the ambitious part. At season’s end, staffers who met certain criteria will receive another $2,000 after Labor Day.

To qualify, employees could only take off 10 days or less and must have worked 240 hours in the season. This required about a 30-hour workweek. The rules were established to help reduce call-outs and excessive vacation requests.

With the incentive, registrants for the city’s lifeguard certification course increased about twofold. In the end, the aquatics staff grew enough to open 14 of the city’s 29 pools, rather than the eight it had originally planned.

The incentive worked to draw new and previous staff alike, said Kelly Martinez, aquatics coordinator for City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department. Some who had originally refused to return in favor of internships or other opportunities changed their minds.

“It was a game changer,” Martinez said.

The quality of new hires matched previous years, she added, as they still had to go through the regular interview process.

In addition to a significant reduction in call-outs and vacation requests, serious discipline problems also dropped, said Becky Kirk, aquatics supervisor for City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department.

Management is assessing who will qualify for the final bonus. Kirk expects about 95% to do so.

This is another step in the process of rebuilding post-pandemic, which no doubt will take a few years. Phoenix went from about 600 employees in 2019 to none in 2020, when all its pools remained closed for the season. After losing that staff and momentum, building had to occur gradually. In 2023, Martinez expects to focus on attracting and promoting more management: With so many of the city’s aquatics employees being new, the city has a gap of those qualified for promotion. And it hopes to open yet more pools next summer.

The city was able to do this in part with the funds it saved in 2020 and 2021 when aquatics services were reduced or completely shuttered, Kirk said. Management will find out next year from the city whether they can offer the program or some version of it next year. “Management is definitely talking about wages and understands that money is the key to getting the people we need in order to open the pools,” Kirk said.