The union is blocking the ability of N.Y.ers to swim safely and its stranglehold needs to be ended

New York State-run pools will be free this summer, says Gov. Hochul, and its beaches are fully staffed with 1,100 lifeguards. Good on Gov. Hochul; on a warming planet, New Yorkers deserve to be able to take a dip for free.

But such a move couldn’t have been possible if not for a state lifeguard recruitment process that’s far smarter and more responsive to actual economics than the one we have here in New York City, where overly rigid union rules have long depressed the ranks of those allowed to apply for the job.

Here, a persistent shortage of lifeguards continues to keep public cooling waters from opening as fully as they should. Yes, the city’s pools, including a nicely renovated Astoria Pool, are open for the season. But 1,000 lifeguards are needed for the beaches and pools and so far there are only 600. Last year topped out at 850, still not enough. Due to the scarcity, too many sections are cordoned off, and too often people are forced to spend their time waiting to get in rather than actually dunking and splashing.

Let’s be clear: Mayor Adams and Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue have made real progress in attacking a problem that’s bedeviled many city administrations. They’ve confronted the department’s Lifeguard Division, which is run by a too-powerful union and its boss, Peter Stein, who’s made it far too hard for people to break into the ranks. To name one of many examples, the American Red Cross standards that are good enough for New York State and YMCA pools haven’t been good enough for New York City. We put up high barriers and, whadya know, got a shrunken talent supply. 

Fortunately, that’s changing now. The city won a sizable victory in arbitration in May: the loosening up of overly rigid regulations to give more people the ability to qualify to protect swimmers. And lifeguards will be in the regular Parks Department chain of command — rather than being only accountable to the union. That’s on top of an earlier agreement with the union to permanently improve the pay of city lifeguards to $22 an hour, while delivering a $1,000 per year bonus to returning lifeguards.  

So too, the city has opened up more sites for people to take lifeguard qualification tests, and has partnered with the YMCA to recruit new lifeguards.

But even if the union and Stein no longer have a total stranglehold around the recruitment and management of lifeguards, they remain an albatross around the city’s collective neck as temperatures soar and pools remain an essential free city resource. Adams and Donoghue must do more to bolster recruitment, training and retention efforts.

And they must build on good work already done to teach basic swimming skills to more children, while educating the public on water hazards that endanger even those with decent swimming ability.

In the last five years alone, around a dozen people have drowned in the waters off the Rockaways, including two teenage boys who already lost their lives to the waves this summer. That’s not simply a lifeguard problem. People — often young people — venture out, frequently to areas where no lifeguards patrol even when there’s an ample supply of them, and then get taken by tides that are far stronger than they anticipated.

In this era of climate change, cool water can and should be New Yorkers’ best friend. Make it so.

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