Ken Rosen, 81, swims at the Reiche Pool in Portland on Wednesday. This summer, the pool will be closed because of a shortage of lifeguards. Rosen, who lives in the neighborhood and swims every day, will likely swim at the Kiwanis pool instead, he said. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Nearly every day since his knees began to go and he gave up running marathons, Ken Rosen has walked to the community pool in his West End neighborhood to swim laps. He knows just about everyone there and just about everyone knows him.

“The thing about a pool is it becomes a community in itself,” he said.

But Rosen, 81, soon will have to switch up his routine and temporarily give up that community when Portland officials close the Reiche Community Center pool for the summer because the city doesn’t have enough lifeguards.

The decision was a tough one, but unavoidable because Portland has about half the number of lifeguards needed to cover all three municipal swimming pools, said Colleen Lepage, the aquatics supervisor.

People swim laps at Reiche Pool last Wednesday. This summer, the pool will be closed because of a shortage of lifeguards. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

“I just don’t have the staff,” she said. “There have always been times in the past where I’m kind of panicked this time of year. It’s not uncommon for me to have to fill in a little bit. This is the third summer where I will be filling in at the outdoor pool.”

Lepage is used to the challenge of finding lifeguards, but said it has become more of a struggle in the past few years.


The shortage of lifeguards is not limited to community pools and it reaches far beyond Maine’s borders. A nationwide lifeguard shortage that has been growing for nearly two decades worsened during the pandemic when lifeguard certification courses were shut down and foreign college students couldn’t come to the United States to take the jobs for the summer.

Maine beachgoers may notice fewer lifeguards – or none at all – on some of the state’s busiest beaches this summer.

More than half of state parks that typically have lifeguards have none signed up for the season. Biddeford will have reduced coverage at several beaches. And in Old Orchard Beach, lifeguards will have to prioritize which sections of the 7-mile beach to cover each day.

“Lifeguards are critical positions for keeping the public safe, and no community wants to be facing this unfortunate reality of struggling to find staff,” said Carl Walsh, Biddeford’s recreation director.

Bernard J. Fisher of the American Lifeguard Association is blunt in his assessment of a lifeguard shortage that could close a third of the country’s 309,000 community pools and leave numerous beaches unguarded this summer.

“There’s a crisis out there, ” said Fisher, who is health and safety director for the Virginia-based association. “I’ve been in this industry all my life and this is the worst it’s ever been.”


In Maine and across the country, labor shortages have impacted nearly every industry. Businesses struggling to find workers have been forced to cut hours and services while increasing wages to attract employees. For seasonal businesses, it can be even harder to fill positions that will last for just a few months. The YMCA of Southern Maine, for example, has opened summer day camp enrollment at only two camps, where it could confirm enough staff would be available to care for children.

Morgan Gryskwicz during her shift at Reiche Pool last Wednesday. Gryskwicz usually works as a therapeutic specialist. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer) Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

The beginning of the lifeguard shortage can be traced back two decades to when baby boomers were retiring and more condos and hotels that needed lifeguards were being developed, Fisher said. At the same time, interest in lifeguarding was starting to wane after the end of the popular TV show “Baywatch,” about lifeguards patrolling beaches in Southern California.

For most of the past 15 years, 40,000 to 60,000 Eastern European college students came to the United States each summer on J-1 visas to work as lifeguards, according to the lifeguard association. Those numbers dropped dramatically when the Trump Administration first slashed the number of such visas available, then banned them at the start of the pandemic.

President Biden let the ban on temporary work visas expire, but it remains difficult for many prospective visa holders to travel and commit to coming to the U.S., Fisher said.

“The final straw that broke the camel’s back is when the pandemic struck; we pretty much stopped teaching lifeguarding classes,” Fisher said.

Those classes matter, he said, because while about 300,000 people train to become lifeguards each year, they need to renew their certification two years later. During the first year of the pandemic, certification classes were canceled and only some of them restarted the next year. That left close to half a million lifeguards unable to train or renew their certification over the past two years.


At the same time, Fisher said, there weren’t many swim classes, adding to concern that there could be an uptick in drownings. Drowning remains the leading cause of unintentional death for children ages 1 to 4. Every year, there are nearly 4,000 drownings in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If families are headed out to swim this summer at beaches or pools without lifeguards, they should make sure there is always a designated water watcher to keep an eye on children, Fisher said. He also suggests any child who is a novice swimmer wear a life jacket at all times in the water.

“We know of no child who has drowned in a community pool with a life jacket on,” he said.


The city of Portland operates community pools year-round at the Reiche and Riverton community centers, and the Kiwanis pool on Douglass Street is open to the public during the summer. At various times during the pandemic, restrictions and staffing forced the city to close the facilities or cancel programs.

The Reiche pool was closed the past two summers, but reopened to the public last September. City staff hoped that it would stay open, Lepage said, but staff shortages have persisted. The decision to close this summer was made recently and people in the neighborhood are just finding out.


Rosen, who has been swimming at the pool for about 20 years, said he understands the challenge the city faces to find enough lifeguards. He’ll head to the Kiwanis pool instead – he hates the drive out to the Riverton pool – but will be eager to return to Reiche when it reopens.

“I found the news it was going to be closed all summer a major disappointment. I assume it will be a major disappointment for all the kids in the neighborhood who just love the open swim,” he said. “I think it’s a blow to the neighborhood and a blow to Portland.”

Jackie Certain conducts a therapeutic recreation session at Reiche Pool in Portland on June 8. This summer, the pool will be closed because of a shortage of lifeguards. Certain, who also lifeguards at the pool, said she doesn’t have her deep-water certification so she cannot be a lifeguard at other pools. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Jackie Certain, a lifeguard at Reiche, worries about the neighborhood kids and families who won’t be able to get to the other pools this summer.

“It’s a sad thing. These kids aren’t going to bike to Kiwanis,” she said. “They’re not going to be able to get to Riverton for open swims.”

Certain, who is certified as a shallow water lifeguard, said she isn’t able to lifeguard at the city’s other pools, but she expects to keep most of her hours by working in other programs and by giving swim lessons.

Lepage said she hopes the pool will reopen in the fall. In the meantime, she’s trying to recruit adults who swim laps at city pools to become lifeguards.


Fisher, from the American Lifeguard Association, suggests communities looking for lifeguards focus on trying to find older candidates, including people who are retired and physically active.

“We have an age group that’s out there and may have the extra time on their hands to help out,” he said. “If we don’t start aggressively training people, some of the pools that are able to open now are going to have to close before Labor Day.”

The state is still actively looking for lifeguards to work at 11 state parks, said Jim Britt, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. As of last week, no lifeguards had signed on to cover beaches at six state parks: Reid State Park, Damariscotta Lake, Range Pond, Lake St. George, Peaks Kenney and Mt. Blue.

Kris Clark, left, talks with Ken Rosen, bottom right, and Chris Waldman, center, before getting into swim at Reiche Pool last Wednesday. Clark has swum there for 25 years, Waldman for about 10. “It’s more than a pool, this feels like a little community,” Waldman said. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Those swimming areas will remain open, but signs will be posted indicating when there is no lifeguard coverage. Staff also will tell people at the park gates and remind them that children in the water need to be closely monitored by an adult when lifeguards are not there. Other park staff will be on duty, Britt said.

Hiring for the state parks will continue through the summer season. Pay for lifeguards at start parks recently increased to $16.08 an hour to try to stay competitive, Britt said.

“It’s been a challenge recruiting lifeguards and there’s no doubt the pandemic had a compounding effect on the difficulty of recruiting,” he said. “It’s a tough spot playing catch-up in an already challenging market.”



Every summer, thousands of people descend on the 7-mile stretch of sand at Old Orchard Beach. Ideally, there would be a contingent of 31 lifeguards working the beach in July and August. Over the past 10 years, the yearly average has been around 23 lifeguards, said Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne.

So far this year, the town has hired only 15 lifeguards, though it may be able to add a few more before beach coverage starts the first week of July. Captains will have to make daily decisions about which parts of the beach to focus on and consider factors such as where there are riptides and where large groups are gathering, LaMontagne said.

The town has changed how it recruits lifeguards to try to bring in more, he said,  with more of an effort put into social media advertising and trying to connect with people through job fairs and open swims.

“At lot of things have changed in the workforce for people we’ve employed in the past,” LaMontagne said. “More businesses are open, there are more internships and other opportunities. It’s impacted our ability to get lifeguards.”

In Biddeford, Walsh, the recreation director, sees similar challenges in finding and keeping lifeguards. When fully staffed, the city has 16 to 18 lifeguards who watch over Pool Beach, Middle Beach, Fortunes Rocks Beach and the beach at Rotary Park on the Saco River. This year, the city has 10 lifeguards.


That means there will be no coverage at Middle Beach on some days and limited coverage at the other beaches, Walsh said. At Rotary Park, guards will be on duty until 5 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. When no lifeguards are available, signs will go up on the beaches and the information will be posted on social media.

Walsh said the city has raised the starting wage for lifeguards to $15.50 an hour and hopes to continue to increase pay. Biddeford also has partnered with the University of New England to train and certify lifeguards. The city covers the cost of training, saving eligible employees up to $400, Walsh said.

Beaches in two of York County’s busiest seaside towns will be fully covered or close to it this summer, despite the widespread hiring challenges.

There are already 19 lifeguards on the roster in Ogunquit, and Fire Chief Russ Osgood hopes to add a few more before beach season really gets going. They’ll be able to fully cover a mile and a half of town beaches, he said, but it would be nice to have a cushion so lifeguards can have more time off to enjoy their summer.

“We wouldn’t be in crisis mode with what we have, but is it optimal? It could be better. Nobody is where they want to be,” Osgood said.

Osgood said he believes Ogunquit is able to successfully recruit lifeguards because its pay is higher than other towns, ranging from $17 to $24 an hour based on experience. The beach is challenging and lifeguards stay busy, he said, but guards also get to interact with “great” people on a beautiful beach.


“Who wouldn’t want to work on something so gorgeous?” he said.

York may be the exception when it comes to hiring seasonal lifeguards.

“We have hired all we need. I have a couple people training with me who I don’t have positions for,” said Jeff Patten, the town’s beach operations manager.

Patten recognizes the challenges other communities are facing. He’s seen the changes, he said. Years ago, he would have had a line out the door of people who wanted to sign up. Now, he said, he puts a lot more work into recruiting and training.

York is one of seven communities in New England certified by the United States Lifesaving Association, which offers a more rigorous certification for beach lifeguards and open water rescuers. That allows the town to train and certify its own lifeguards at no cost to the candidates, an added bonus when it comes to attracting new people.

“As long as they’re a good, competent athlete, I can turn them into an ocean rescue guard,” Patten said.

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