Rifle municipal pool deals with lifeguard shortage
Driblets of water beaded down Hudson Parrington’s goggles and blue wetsuit decorated with a cartoon shark on its front. The 7-year-old had just slid down a small waterslide and began sharing his take on the best part of the pool.
“The lazy river!” he exclaimed. “It’s my favorite.”
Amid 93-degree heat, low winds and sparse clouds, the summer heat helped usher in the first official day of the Rifle Metro Pool’s opening Friday. It wasn’t even 1:30 p.m. yet and at least 150 visitors had already sold out the maximum limit.
Hudson’s mother, Katie Parrington, dunked her legs into the water as she sat on the pool’s edge, while scores of kids continued to wade by and splash gleefully in the water.
She started to dive into how this year at the pool compares to 2020, the summer of COVID-19.
“I mean, it was different,” she said. “In a way, it was kind of nice with the limited amount of people just because it wasn’t super crazy. And it’s a little bit unfortunate that you can only stay two hours, but it’s just good to be here.”
In 2020, the Rifle Metro Pool limited capacity to 75 people at a time. In 2021, 150 people are now allowed in at any given time.
Prior to 2020, the Rifle Metro Pool was less than half the size of what is today, which now includes a lap pool with a diving board, a beach-entry pool with a play structure and a flow channel, a catch pool with a 27-foot waterslide and a family whirlpool, among other new amenities.
“The kids’ area is really cool for kids that aren’t tall enough; the lazy river’s amazing,” Katie Parrington said. “The deeper end with the rock climbing wall and the basketball hoops, the bigger kids enjoy that. It’s good.”
Before voters approved roughly $8 million on these renovations, however, the old Art Dague Pool had been around since opening in 1969.
Back then, the pool was built to accommodate less than 3,000 people living in the area. That project materialized from a $90,000 bond issue.
The voters of Rifle opted in 2017 for the city to go out for a $6 million loan to help get the ball rolling for a pool renovation project. By Aug. 9, 2019, the Art Dague shut the gate, and ground was eventually broken.
A bigger municipal pool means hiring more workers to run the place, but the global pandemic disrupted the workforce itself.
Rifle Recreation Program Manager Austin Rickstrew said the pool has about 50 lifeguards on staff, which isn’t enough to necessarily float the boat.
“We need about 60 to 70 lifeguards so we can allow people to have days off,” Rickstrew said.
With the old, significantly smaller pool, fewer lifeguards were required to patrol and supervise their aquatic domain, which meant hiring the right amount of people wasn’t an issue.
“With the new pool it requires more guards per shift just because we’ve basically tripled in size,” Rickstrew said. “So we have to have a lot more eyes on different bodies of water. … We went from two bodies of water in the old pool to having four bodies of water.”
Typically, lifeguard positions are filled by high school- or college-aged individuals. This means the full-time workforce that’s slowly thawing from the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t necessarily on the prowl for a seasonal, part-time job at a community pool, Rickstrew said. The pay range for starting lifeguards is $12.50 to $13.50. Pay increases if an employee decides to get certified to teach swim lessons.
But the most pressing issue in relation to hiring more bodies isn’t limited to workforce demographics. More specifically, being that COVID-19 compelled state and local officials to vote to delay and extend high school sports, some prospective lifeguards are still finishing up with Season D sports.
“With sports going into June, in the first week in July — that takes a lot of our workforce away,” Rickstrew said. “Because they’re still playing high school sports with this COVID season still going on.”
Worst-case scenario, a lack of staff could mean shaving off some hours of operation, Rickstrew said.
On Thursday afternoon, McAllister Glynn, 17, kneeled beside the whirlpool and began scrubbing away at the checkered tiles on an exterior wall.
Since staffing is limited, cleaning could very well be a more prevalent duty than overseeing swimmers’ safety and well-being throughout the summer.
“It’d be nicer to have more guards,” she said.
With fewer fellow employees, you get fewer breaks, Glynn said.
“Because a lot of the time your shifts are in the middle of the day, so that kind of leaves you with not a whole lot of time; not in the beginning, not a lot of time at the end of the day,” Glynn said. “So, to have the whole day off, it’s a lot easier. You can actually go and do something without having to cut out a big chunk of time to come to work.”
Nearby, fellow lifeguard Kaden Wolf, 18, waded knee-deep in the zero-entry pool, slowly cleaning the floor. Despite recently being a go-to running back for Rifle High School football, he still lamented that an extension on high school sports has affected the potential workforce.
“It’s definitely kind of thrown a wrench in at least the plans for the pool, because a lot of our staff from last year is involved in track and soccer and whatnot,” he said. “So they’re not going to be able to come work until later in the summer.”
Training consists of taking 40 hours worth of lifeguard certification classes, which the city defrays if an employee chooses to get their certification through the local pool.
“But at the same time, you know, with COVID and everything, sports are important,” Wolf said. “And the fact that they’re able to get them done this year … that’s kind of a priority for a lot of the high school kids that are working here.”
Looking toward the season, Wolf described it in one word: crazy.
“Like, I’ve worked with the same people almost every day this week,” he said. “A lot of the people that were here last year didn’t come back, so even though we’re short-staffed, a lot of the guards are still new. But hopefully, people keep coming and showing up.”
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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