More than half of all summer lifeguard positions were vacant the day before a top Chicago Park District official promised Chicago City Council members that at least “some” of its outdoor pools would open on July 5, according to data obtained by WTTW News through a Freedom of Information Act request.
More than 55% of the department’s 587 seasonal lifeguard positions were vacant as of June 23, according to Chicago Park District data, eight days after officials announced the city’s 49 outdoor pools would not open on schedule — leaving Chicagoans to swelter during a record-breaking heat wave.
Chicago Park District Chief Program Officer Daphne Johnson told City Council members that the district “absolutely plan(s) on opening pools on July 5” but declined to say how many pools will open, and how the pools that do open will be chosen.
Officials are considering “different options of how many pools we can get open and how we can saturate the city as much as possible with our pool operations,” Johnson said Friday during a hearing held by several City Council committees to review plans to reduce violence in Chicago this summer.
Chicago Park District Superintendent Rosa Escareño told WTTW News’ “Chicago Tonight” on June 20 that the district needed at least “300 lifeguards” to open an “ample number” of pools this summer.
The district had just 264 summer lifeguards on its payroll as of June 23, according to data provided to WTTW News.
That represents a significant improvement since May 23, when 90% of the district’s summer lifeguard positions were vacant, with just 61 positions filled, according to data provided to WTTW News.
The district is also facing a significant number of vacant permanent lifeguard positions, which staff the district’s 28 indoor pools. More than 26% of those positions are empty, and the district did not hire a single permanent lifeguard between May 23 and June 23, according to data provided to WTTW News.
More than 53% of the district’s seasonal and permanent lifeguard positions are vacant, according to data provided to WTTW News.
Beaches opened as scheduled on May 27 and were the only source of relief for Chicagoans during this month’s intense heat wave that broke records that stood for more than three decades. The pools were scheduled to open on Friday, but did not.
Escareño and other Chicago Park District officials blamed the delay on a “national shortage” of lifeguards and “several other factors.”
Those “other factors” include the revelation that the leadership of the Chicago Park District failed to investigate dozens of complaints of lifeguard abuse, assault and harassment at Chicago’s pools and beaches. The scandal prompted the ouster of the district’s commissioner, board president, chief programs officer, assistant director of recreation and the manager of the park district’s beaches and pools unit.
Escareño has led the agency since October, and pledged to help the district emerge from the scandal. Escareño created the Office of Prevention and Accountability, which has a $600,000 budget and is charged with preventing misconduct and investigating allegations of misconduct by park employees and patrons.
Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward) said Friday the Chicago Park District’s failure to protect the girls and young women on its staff was the cause of the shortfall.
“We ain’t got a labor problem,” Taylor said. “We’ve got a how-we-treat-people problems.”
Park District officials were “not honest with its citizens about what happened,” and that is why parents have told her they would not allow their teens to work for the park district, Taylor said — and why she has not and will not recommend young Chicagoans work there.
“Why would I, if you all are going to sweep under the rug what happened and not be honest?” Taylor asked.
Efforts to boost the number of lifeguards with an advertising campaign and $500 signing bonuses failed to prevent the opening of the pools from being delayed. Lifeguards are paid $15.88 an hour, just slightly more than the city’s minimum wage of $15 per hour.
Less than 24 hours before acknowledging the pools would not open on time, park district officials increased the signing bonus to $600.
Officials also temporarily relaxed the residency requirement for lifeguard applicants, and offered $500 bonuses to park district employees who refer qualified lifeguard candidates, who must pay $80 to complete an American Red Cross lifeguard training course and be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.