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Council Hopes To Pool Resources To Hike Wages For Lifeguards

Photo courtesy Citiparks, City of Pittsburgh

A bill offered up in Pittsburgh City Council Wednesday seeks to provide more money for lifeguards at city pools, in hopes that doing so will encourage more people to apply. But the city’s top parks official says the problem is that the hiring pool itself is running dry — and that other seasonal workers deserve enhanced wages too.

The bill, sponsored by Councilors Deb Gross and Theresa Kail-Smith, would transfer $380,000 from Public Works to provide more money for lifeguards and pool aides. It’s an effort to find staff for more than the eight pools the city plans to open next week.

“I would be happy if [even] one more pool opened,” said Gross. “I would feel badly if we didn’t try.”

But Parks and Recreation director Ross Chapman threw cold water on the proposal, noting that the hiring shortage was not unique to the city, and that efforts to resolve it with wage hikes were meeting with mixed success elsewhere. Allegheny County, he said, was “still struggling to get to a safe number [of guards] to facilitate the safe operation of all of their pools,” though the county pays $14 an hour or more.

The city, meanwhile, had initially been concerned that the economic and fiscal impact of the coronavirus would constrain its ability to spend on lifeguards. But as the virus ebbed over the past month, Chapman said, the city faced a new challenge.

“We’re just not getting people to take those positions,” Chapman said. “So the monetary concern … is not as immediate a concern as just trying to find people.”

“We’ve done outreach in ways we’ve never done it in the past” to find guards, he said, including radio ads and other outreach. But college students and others who have served as guards in the past have not come back this summer, with the result that the city is barely able to tread water on staffing the 80 guards it needs for the pools opening next week. Bringing another pool online at this point could take weeks even if it had staff, Chapman added.

Similar shortages have bedeviled employers nationwide, especially in the service-sector. Many of those industries have increased wages as an enticement, and the city itself has already increased wages for guards. It originally budgeted entry-level lifeguard positions at $10.77 an hour, though Chapman says it is actually offering $11.30 an hour. Head guards can earn between $14 and $16 an hour, meaning that compared to other municipal pools in the area, “We're already in that competitive range for some of our guards."

Such guards make up between one-quarter and one-third of the roster, he said.

Meanwhile, Chapman said, other seasonal part-time workers — like some of those in a food-distribution and senior programs — were earning far less.

"I feel we should offer [increases] to all the positions that we're trying to fill. It just doesn't seem like it's the right approach to offer it to one group of individuals and not to others. "

Chapman envisioned increasing wages for guards from to $12.75 — an increase of 18.4% from the original starting salary, and then increasing wages for other seasonal staff by the same percentage.

While Chapman says he would like to pay a living wage in the $15 an hour range for all those workers, he added, “It's just not doable in the short term and maybe not the longer term. But we can do more with our existing funds and we intend to."

Councilors said they would support broader increases — and Gross said she was drafting an amendment that would expand the number of job descriptions entitled to a wage hike. But Kail-Smith said the priority should be on summer activities, especially since kids would have difficulty getting to a pool outside their neighborhood.

“This is not OK. We have basic services we have to provide our residents,” she said. Pools were “the only activity that some people know, and I just worry that we're talking it away from them."

And while Councilor Ricky Burgess expressed concern about reopening the budget to tinker with individual line items, Kail-Smith said “time is of the essence,” in part because city schools are due to close for the summer next week. She worried that a spike in homicide rates and other ills could worsen if the city simply left young people with no form of recreation or support.

“There doesn't seem to be a sense of urgency when it involves kids in this city,” she said. “Yet when something happens, there’s always a sense of ‘we should do more for the kids.’”

She and Gross did, however, agree to hold the bill for a week, to refine the numbers and the positions with Chapman and budget officials.

Councilor Bruce Kraus, meanwhile, said that while he would be supportive of efforts to increase lifeguard wages, similar challenges were likely to surface in future budget talks.

“I believe it’s going to be on us to understand ... how important it is for us to be competitive in the job market to attract the most talented talent that we can,” he said.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.