Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

Everyone Into the Pool

Julie Sandorf

June 21, 2024

New York City is making meaningful progress adding lifeguards and investing in facilities — but there’s more to do to make cooling waters accessible to all.

New York City is making meaningful progress adding lifeguards and investing in facilities — but there’s more to do to make cooling waters accessible to all.

The summer of 2024 will be hotter than ever, with forecasts predicting double last year’s total of 90-plus degree days. And while some of us can afford to just crank up the air, for millions of New Yorkers, the city’s beaches (which already opened) and its pools (set to open on June 27) are often the only way to get relief from the heat. 

If only they were genuinely accessible to all. In the past couple of years, severe shortages in lifeguard staffing resulting from rigid union rules, coupled with an arcane city capital construction process, have far too often made cool water an empty promise. We’ve seen some pools shuttered for years on end, hours curtailed, beaches forced to close and swim classes canceled, even as the mercury has risen and risen.


This is not simply a lament. At long last, relief is in sight. After more than 40 years of silent acquiescence to the gross mismanagement of the Parks Department’s Lifeguard Division — for decades operated as a fiefdom by a director who also happens to run the city’s Lifeguard Supervisor’s Local 508 of DC 37’s powerful municipal union — the Adams administration has taken action. They spent more than a year trying to negotiate a new contract to ease the stranglehold of rules and restrictions that maintained the director’s absolute control of recruitment, testing, certification, placement and supervision of lifeguards, which had eviscerated the Department’s ability to fully staff pools and beaches, and last month announced a breakthrough. 

An arbitration panel has issued an award that, promises the City, “will functionally pave the way for the city to be able to hire more lifeguards, allow more swimming capacity at beaches and pools over the coming summers, and improve operations of the city lifeguard program.”

The new contract includes a pay increase to $22 an hour and a returning bonus of $1,000, important levers to improve recruitment. It eases some overly onerous requirements; pool lifeguards will no longer need to have perfect 20/20 vision without lenses, and timed swim tests have been eliminated for shallow pools. Most importantly, lifeguards will finally be returned to the Parks Department chain of command, which means that the Department, not the union boss, will be assigning and overseeing the lifeguard division, thus ensuring greater flexibility, accountability and transparency.

After more than 40 years of silent acquiescence to the gross mismanagement of the Parks Department’s Lifeguard Division, the Adams administration has taken bold action.

The Parks Department’s progress is being bolstered in equal part by an interagency and nonprofit public/private Aquatics Task Force established in 2023 to collectively tackle the myriad problems that have long plagued the system. It and public officials aligned with its goals have already taken a number of steps that will improve pools physically, expand the lifeguard ranks and teach a far greater number of New York City kids to swim. Among other things:

  • Prior to 2023, a single site, located in Midtown Manhattan, was the only option for taking qualification tests. Now, 10 Department of Education (DOE) pools across the city have been made available for lifeguard-qualifying tests.

  • The YMCA and the Parks Department have also teamed up to recruit for lifeguard training programs, offered at the Y and the Parks Department, at all city public high schools and at swim meets organized by the Public School Athletic League. A first-ever collaboration will provide ‘in-school’ lifeguard training to public high school students at Ft. Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, and $500,000 in new funding from the state Assembly aims to expand the Y’s lifeguard training and certification programs.

  • And just this week, Adams launched an initiative known as “Let’s Swim NYC,” which the City touted as representing a $1 billion capital investment to build, improve and protect public pools over a five year period — “bringing needed funding to 39 pools, including building two brand new indoor pools and fully renovating three additional pools.”

  • For the first time in memory, $75 million in capital funds have been allocated to the DOE to renovate inoperable school pools. Over the past year, the DOE’s School Construction Authority has renovated seven pools in six campuses, and four are currently in construction. DOE Commissioner David Banks recently announced that these pools will be made available to outside organizations during off-school hours.

Unfinished business

While well-deserved kudos must be given to Mayor Adams, his indomitable Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue and her can-do staff, and the Aquatics Task Force, much must be done to enable beaches and pools to operate at full capacity. Beaches opened on Memorial Day weekend with only 230 of the 600 lifeguards needed. Before the end-of-month opening of the pools, an estimated 800-900 lifeguards will be hired to fill over 1,400 slots. 

In contrast, the Chicago Parks District fully staffed its 77 pools and 27 beaches this summer, in no small part due to a newly formed Parks District Lifeguard Explorers Training Program targeted to Chicago teens and young adults up to age 22, which focuses on the skills and practice time required to pass the CPD lifeguard skills test. A recruiting campaign that began in fall 2023 received over 2,000 applications, and resulted in the hiring of over 200 young people for lifeguard positions with the parks district. 

Additionally, After School Matters, a Chicago youth development program, partners with Chicago’s public schools to provide lifeguard training in 11 high schools across the city. The program is so popular that seven of its programs were oversubscribed. For more than 20 years, this program has provided a steady pipeline of lifeguards for Chicago’s public pools and beaches.

All of which is to say, in order to ensure full access to every possible city pool and beach for the summer of 2025, New York City must do more.

First and foremost, the Parks Department Lifeguard Division must do away with its unaccountable and opaque “independent certification” process and adopt the American Red Cross standards, which are the norm for lifeguard certification across the country — including at New York State facilities and YMCA pools here. Over the past year, The Y has certified 222 lifeguards, most of whom are New York City public high school students. Though these young people can work in any Y or private/nonprofit pool in the city, their certification still holds no credence with the Parks Department Lifeguard division. Those professionals would go a long way to fixing the current staffing shortage. 

The mayor should apply the same common sense he used in breaking the stranglehold over the Lifeguard Division to expediting the extremely long and highly circuitous process of designing and renovating city pools.

The Lifeguard Division must start playing better with others. To date, they have refused to join the Task Force, were noticeably absent from the mayor’s press conference, and did not comment publicly on the new contract requirements. The train has left the station and the union leadership needs to climb aboard and prioritize the needs of New Yorkers over the parochial interests of a few members. 

To encourage even more young people to join the lifeguard ranks, the Task Force is working to include swim/lifeguard training in the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program. That’s essential. Funds should also be allocated to expand the Y’s collaboration with the DOE to train and certify high school students at public school pools. 

And as the promised infrastructure investments continue to flow, the mayor must apply the same common sense he used in breaking the stranglehold over the Lifeguard Division to expediting the extremely long and highly circuitous process of designing and renovating city pools.

Despite being at the mercy of a byzantine multi-agency review process, the intrepid Parks Department has managed to reopen pools that have been closed for years, including the mini-pool at Edenwald Houses in the Bronx, which had been closed for a decade and as of last year, had no construction completion date. The Astoria Pool, the largest of the city’s 11 iconic WPA-era pools, will open on June 27, after a $19 million renovation. 

But the only public indoor pool in the Bronx remains closed, as does the public indoor pool located in Brownsville, one of the city’s lowest income communities. New York City already has, by far, the smallest numbers of pools, per capita, among America’s biggest cities, and this summer season will open with three of the city’s 53 outdoor pools (Harlem Meer, Tompkins Square Park, and Tony Dapolito) out of commission.

The administration could borrow a page from the success of the DOE’s School Construction Authority and consider establishing a Parks Construction subsidiary, or even declare a very justified “climate emergency” and expedite these projects now.

Give credit where it’s due: The Adams administration has succeeded in doing what no other Mayor in over 40 years has done — winning work-rule and management improvements for the Lifeguard Division. It is within Mayor Adams’ reach to finish the job to ensure that many more New Yorkers can get safely in the water and benefit from an essential community asset they have paid for with their tax dollars. 

Note: Julie Sandorf is the president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation. The Revson Foundation is a funder of the Aquatics Task Force and the YMCA lifeguard training program. Kiryat Hance, office and program assistant, provided research assistance. The Revson Foundation is also a funder of Vital City.