Let’s Go to the Beach?

The recent shortage of lifeguards has left New York City beaches dangerous, as visitors should be guaranteed safety while enjoying an integral part of their community.

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By Stacey Chen

Summer in New York City is simultaneously amazing and horrible. Students relax from demanding academics, but the hordes of tourists mixed with the sweltering heat and humidity create a uniquely uncomfortable environment. The one place where many New Yorkers find respite is the beach: if you find yourself in a less crowded spot, the sea breeze can blow in your hair, and the cold, salty water refreshes you. However, beach visitors have recently been greeted with red flags, which represent prohibited swimming, all over Brighton Beach and Coney Island, the most accessible and popular beaches in Brooklyn. This is due to the national shortage of lifeguards, as the Parks Department reported that they had fewer than 500 lifeguards ready to work as of May. In comparison, the New York Times reported that the city hired nearly 1,500 lifeguards in 2016. This considerable difference in lifeguards is alarming as the next generation deserves to enjoy the beach as generations have before.

Unfortunately, this lifeguard shortage is attributed to low wages, an extremely selective test, and problems within the lifeguard department and its union. Though the Parks Department has attempted to recruit more lifeguards through high schools and job fairs, the union and the qualifying test have shut down many potential applicants. The test previously consisted of a 50-yard swim in under 35 seconds, but last year, the time allotted was extended to 45 seconds because of an extremely high failure rate of 74 percent. There is an argument to keep the test selective to ensure the quality of the lifeguards, but when applicants report that the officials of lifeguard training are giving them a hard time, there will obviously be a shortage. At the same time, lifeguard unions have long been criticized for a culture of favoritism and gatekeeping among union leaders. City officials allege that union leaders delay initiatives to increase applicants by canceling meetings and insisting on communicating by fax. Meanwhile, unions claim that the shortage is because the government refuses to rehire guards based on salary issues. However, the salary for newer lifeguards was increased to $21.26 hourly in early April 2023. 

Lifeguards are essential to New York City beaches, where children and other amateur swimmers need oversight. Additionally, this lifeguard shortage affects low-income communities the hardest, as families that cannot afford to take vacations can still have the beach to enjoy in the summer. While wealthier New Yorkers jet away to Europe, the Bahamas, or other exotic destinations, middle and lower-class citizens should have the right to safe access to the beach, and lifeguards are the key to helping New Yorkers of any socioeconomic class enjoy public services. Furthermore, Brighton Beach and Coney Island are neighborhoods where many immigrants and minorities live, and while visitors of all kinds come to the beach, the local residents suffer the most from the lack of beach surveillance. 15-year-old Markel Artis from the Bronx drowned in Coney Island on July 30th, and while some quick bystanders saved his brother, it was unfortunately too late for him. The city has an obligation to provide safety in recreational areas such as the beach to prevent accidents like drownings.  Many New Yorkers enjoy spending their summertime at beaches for free, and having such neglectful conditions is tragic. The city has no shortage of activities and events that require some sort of payment. However, the beach is the one place where New Yorkers of all incomes can benefit, especially the lower and middle class.

Swimming in the summer is not just a fun activity; it is one of the best ways to improve your mental health, engage in cardiovascular exercise, and socialize. The beach holds some of my fondest memories, especially from when I was a child. I am lucky to have grown up right next to the beach and have the opportunity to learn to swim. However, that does not represent the majority of New Yorkers, who need proper safety measures to enjoy the beach in the fleeting summertime. It is a shame that the place I remember going to every morning is not guaranteed to be safe anymore. 

Though the issues between the city and the lifeguard union are complicated, the main takeaway should be for the city to prioritize fixing the lifeguard shortage for the safety and well-being of all New Yorkers. The salary increase is a great first step, but if the disagreements continue, lifeguards will not want to work, let alone apply in such a culture. Getting rid of the negative culture in the lifeguard department and encouraging more people to apply should be the city’s main focus for next year’s swimming season.