Polis in Aurora says state will help keep swimming pools staffed with lifeguards

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AURORA | Colorado’s governor says he wants to help keep public pools in Aurora and other cities afloat this summer with grants and policy changes meant to alleviate staffing problems.

Gov. Jared Polis told an audience at Aurora’s Central Recreation Center on Tuesday that his administration will be waiving restrictions on 16- and 17-year-olds clocking overtime, applying state grant funds to pay new lifeguards $1,000 for completing training, and introducing a new $350,000 grant program to help local governments pay and recruit employees at public pools.

“Getting our pools open is truly a watershed moment for our state,” Polis said. “And trust me, it’s no belly flop: we are getting this done.”

Earlier this year, Aurora announced that public pools would be open on a truncated schedule this summer, as the state and the nation grapple with a shortage of qualified lifeguards. Polis said a poll done by his administration indicated that only about 57% of public pools open in 2019 are opening this year.

“As we get into the heat of summer, that is simply not good enough,” he said.

A news release accompanying Polis’ announcement said Colorado’s Department of Labor and Employment is issuing an emergency waiver effective through Sept. 5 that allows 16- and 17-year-old lifeguards to work up to 10 hours per day and 54 hours per week if their employer deems it necessary.

The department will also collaborate with local workforce centers and pay $1,000 stipends out of its Reskilling, Upskilling, And Next-Skilling Workers Grant program for individuals who become certified or receive related training and start working as lifeguards.

Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs and the Office of Economic Development and International Trade’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office are funding the dedicated staffing grants of up to $25,000 for local governments, which will start to be awarded July 1. Applicants, including special districts, can make their submissions at dola.colorado.gov/grants_portal/.

Aurora officials who spoke Tuesday framed the need for outdoor recreation in the context of steering young people away from violence, an urgent topic as the city grapples with the twin problems of youth shootings and gang violence.

“Our pools are a primary destination for Aurora’s youth,” Mayor Mike Coffman said. “The availability of our pools and recreation centers this summer is particularly important as we continue to expand our efforts to offer recreation opportunities for our youth in Aurora.”

Councilmember Alison Coombs called Aurora’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space Department the “lifeblood of our city” and said city pools are “part of the social infrastructure that ensures that not only our young people have somewhere to go and have jobs … but it’s also a place where our families can connect with one another.”

The problem is plaguing schools across the state and nation.

The American Lifeguard Association estimates the shortage impacts one-third of U.S. pools, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.  Bernard J. Fisher II, director of health and safety at the association, expects that to grow to half of all pools by August, when many teenage lifeguards return to school.

“It is a disaster,” Fisher said.

Erin Pulliam of Aurora’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space Department later said the city has tried to entice lifeguard candidates by offering competitive pay between $16 and $20 an hour, paying for training and certification and providing free memberships to city recreation facilities.

She said that, around Memorial Day, the city employed between 175 and 200 lifeguards. That figure has since risen to between 225 and 250 lifeguards, though it’s less than the city’s goal of 300, she said.

If the city attracts enough lifeguards by the end of the summer, they may be able to open public pools on a schedule similar to previous years, Pulliam said. She described lifeguarding as a flexible summer job for students as well as a source of extra income and a way of staying active for retirees.

“Anybody can be a lifeguard, and we’re trying to get that out there as well,” she said.

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