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Syracuse’s lifeguard shortage a symptom of national employment crisis hitting local governments

Syracuse Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs Commissioner Julie LaFave sits in a chair and looks at her phone against the foreground of a "City of Syracuse" plate on a podium, May 17, 2022.
Tarryn Mento
Syracuse Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs Commissioner Julie LaFave sits in a chair and looks at her phone against the foreground of a "City of Syracuse" plate on a podium, May 17, 2022.

The official start of summer finally arrived in Syracuse, but the city actually got a sneak peek in mid-May. The 80-degree heat drew residents outdoors to the city’s parks and playgrounds but on the same day the staff that cares for those spaces was hoping to attract people indoors to its job fair.

The Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs department was looking to add summer staff for its busiest time of year, including about 150 lifeguards to fully staff its outdoor pools. But aquatics manager Tyler Montressor said the agency was falling short.

“We are struggling to reach that number,” Montressor said at the May 21 department hiring event.

Parks filled 22 positions from the event but is still seeking about 60 additional lifeguards.

The challenge is not unexpected — the city competes for lifeguards every season — but the severity this year prompted the department to keep some of its pools closed and cancel swim lessons, water classes and the swim team. The hiring struggle is hitting employers across the country, but local governments are feeling it the hardest.

Federal data shows private sector employment is down slightly compared to pre-pandemic levels – less than one percent. Meanwhile, state government employment is down close to 2 percent, and local governments are faring even worse: employment is down around 4 percent. The issue in some cases is leaving agencies struggling to provide the services taxpayers expect.

Mike Maciag of the nonprofit research organization Pew Charitable Trusts said the public sector was also slow to gain back jobs following the Great Recession in 2008. But back then, the main driver was funding.

“Revenues were suppressed for years, and governments — they simply didn't have the budgets to hire,” Maciag said.

That’s not the core reason behind the problem in today’s post-pandemic world, he said.

“It's not that governments don't want to hire staff or don't have the budget to do so. It's just that they face a lot of challenges in both recruitment and retaining employees,” the Pew research officer said.

A survey by Mission Square Research Institute polled 1,100 state and local government workers earlier this year. A bit more than half of respondents said they were thinking of leaving their jobs primarily because of pay issues. Burnout ranked second.

The hiring issue isn’t just hitting Syracuse’s parks and recreation department. Earlier this year, staffing shortages caused delays in trash pick up across the city. Residents grew frustrated as garbage piled up at their homes.

Syracuse Chief Operations Officer Corey Driscoll Dunham said the city had trouble keeping pace with truck maintenance because it was short on mechanics.

“When it starts to impact our ability to deliver services that people count on and rely on, that's really where it is concerning and a disappointment all around for us as well,” Driscoll Dunham said.

The recruitment challenge extends even beyond Syracuse. Five national government groups are calling on Congress to help with workforce development, primarily around infrastructure job openings.

Pew’s Maciag said part of the problem is that public sector wage growth can’t keep up with private industry.

“We found differences in year-over-year growth rates for hourly wage costs were actually the largest on record dating back nearly four decades,” he said, noting inflation is making the issue worse.

Maciag said it’s difficult for public agencies to respond as well as private companies because compensation hikes often require layers of approval from elected officials, but he said some jurisdictions are turning to offering bonuses.

“In Florida, for instance, they proposed incentives there to recruit police officers to the state,” Maciag said.

Local agencies are taking similar steps. TSA at the Syracuse airport is offering a $2,000 hiring bonus. The Syracuse Police Department advertised an extra $10,000 to officers who move over from other departments.

Driscoll Dunham said the city of Syracuse recently raised wages in its union contracts to be more competitive. The parks department also bumped up lifeguard pay by about a dollar, and the city is turning to new outlets, such as local colleges, for recruitment help.

“Syracuse University, Lemoyne, OCC — we haven't necessarily always reached out to them to say, ‘Hey, we need lifeguards, we need rec aides, we need people that are willing to work for us for the summer,’ but that's a path that we have gone down this year in part because we've had so many difficulties attracting talent,” she said.

Parks department commissioner Julie LaFave said the staffing struggle leaves her worried about meeting the department’s mission. The agency has already made cuts to its aquatics programs, and is still looking for a few more recreation aides to lead activities for kids on summer vacation.

“Syracuse is struggling — highest child poverty rate; we have some crime. We need to be out there serving people the best we can,” LaFave said. “We are an escape in many ways and we want to continue to offer them a safe space.”

The department doesn’t expect the hiring issue to thwart any of its summer youth programming plans, but a parks spokeswoman said that could change.

This is the first in a two-part series that comes from WAER's City Limits: A Working Dilemma podcast.

Tarryn Mento is an award-winning digital, audio and video journalist with experience reporting from Arizona, Southern California, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. Tarryn produces in-depth and investigative content for WAER while overseeing the station's student reporter experience. She is also an adjunct professor at Syracuse University.