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City Parks and Recreation adjusts to major staff shortages

Onesty Family Aquatic Center is closed for the season unless the Charlottesville Department of Parks and Recreation can hire about 45 additional lifeguards, said Vic Garber, deputy director of the department.

“We do not have enough lifeguards to safely open Onesty. And that hurts, to say the least,” Garber said.

Garber said that Parks and Recreation is actively working to hire the required staff and hopes to open the facility as soon as possible. However, he thinks it is unlikely that the city will get enough lifeguards for the season.

“For Onesty, we have to have about 45 more certified guards, which apparently is not going to happen. We need about 10 more guards to safely open Smith Aquatic and Fitness Center, which our goal is to open on Aug. 1,” Garber said. “We are striving to find more guards just to open Smith for the next month, but I really don’t see where 50 lifeguards are going to come knocking on our door at this point.”

Across all pools, the city currently only has 60 total lifeguards on the payroll.

“Normally this time of the year, we have between 120 and 145, so we have about half what we normally have,” Garber said.

Garber said he believes the decrease in people applying for lifeguard positions is a direct result of the pandemic. City lifeguards were terminated during the pandemic.

“Once you do that, it’s hard to get people back,” Garber said at a recent Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee meeting.

“We’ve been closed for so long,” he said. “ACAC and the YMCA probably have collected quite a few of the guards, and everyone across the board … has gone to at least $15 an hour.”

The city previously paid lifeguards $15 an hour and will be increasing the rate to $15.30 on Thursday, the start of the fiscal year.

The city employs lifeguards, swim team coaches and pool managers, as well as American Red Cross, aquatic fitness and group fitness instructors. It also needs a number of maintenance workers in various areas, as well as day camp employees, athletics staff and customer service workers.

The department’s hiring process for these positions didn’t start until April after the city released a reopening plan for the parks and pools. Typically, the hiring process starts in January for the following summer.

“We weren’t able to really put out a requisition and open up to hire anyone till around April. Many, many swimming pools from across the region have been open for over six months so we lost some probably good people,” Garber said.

“But it’s a pandemic, and this is a national problem … Many swimming pools are not open, or if they were able to open, they’re only open three to four days a week. Luckily, we have enough to open Washington Park pool 100% of the time. And our spraygrounds are also there for the general public, which is a huge relief.”

The Carver and Key Recreation centers reopened May 17 and the Tonsler Recreation Center reopened May 24. Crow Indoor Pool and Washington Park Pool opened May 29 and the spraygrounds at Belmont, Forest Hills, Greenleaf and Tonsler parks were reopened throughout the month of May.

“We’re basically adjusting well to the amount of staff that we do have on board. Especially for certified lifeguards, we are certainly short in that area, however, we have enough to safely open Washington Park Pool, and to safely open Crow Pool for lap swimming and other instructional activities such as American Red Cross Learn to Swim programs and group exercise classes,” Garber said.

Garber said that when addressing how to handle the lack of available guards, safety was top of mind. The department focused on which facilities they could fully staff to maintain safety.

“Washington Park is a little more versatile. Basically, it needs less guards than Onesty. Onesty is very high maintenance, it has all the whistles and bells and has blind spots. So we have to have quite a few more guards at Onesty on a daily basis than you do at Washington. It was a pretty easy decision to make to open Washington Park due to the number of guards that we had,” he said.

Garber said that while the main need is for more certified lifeguards, staffing is down overall, which is presenting challenges.

“We need good officials. We need good certified instructors. We need good maintenance workers. We’re understaffed basically across the board,” he said.

“I think we probably have a third of [the maintenance staff] we normally have. We normally hire about 18 additional park workers to help with the horticulture and cleaning up. Now I think we have about six ….”

Garber said everyone has been abiding by COVID-19 safety procedures and there haven’t been any issues, especially as restrictions are being lifted and it becomes easier to operate the facilities. The Smith Aquatic and Fitness Center has undergone maintenance work to improve indoor air quality as a COVID-19 precaution.

“We encourage all persons to wear a mask if not fully vaccinated. But when you’re in the water, you do not have to wear a mask,” he said.

Garber said that while most of the lifeguards are vaccinated, unvaccinated guards are asked to wear a mask when face to face with the public.

“Normally, they’re up on a stand away from the public, so they’re safe in that regard. So the COVID guidelines right now are extremely relaxed. So we’re good in that regard.”

While the staff is significantly smaller than in previous years, Garber said he is proud of the work the existing employees have done in adjusting to the pandemic and staffing shortages.

“I can’t say enough about the work ethic of the staff that we do have; [it’s an] extremely dedicated staff. The full-time staff and the ones that we’ve hired have really stepped up,” he said. “Our patrons have really accepted that we’re doing the best we can and maybe we’re doing a little bit better because we are so short staffed.”

Garber encouraged community members to explore all of the facilities the department has to offer as they reopen.

“I think it’s important to get everyone to kind of take a look at the whole system. And it’s not just about two swimming pools. If it’s a hot day, hopefully everyone’s out looking for spraygrounds to enjoy and experience with their family, but we’ve got a lot of parks out there. We’have our fitness rooms, our fields, our trails. It’s all out there for the citizens to use.”

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