[Lexi Lepof | WOUB]

Athens Lifeguards Quit Following Weeks Of Complaints Over Working Conditions

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Three lifeguards abruptly quit the Athens City Pool last week and others put in their two-weeks notice.

This follows weeks of complaints from lifeguards about working conditions that they believe put themselves and pool patrons at risk. 

The city pool has faced a shortage of lifeguards that resulted in current staff working well over 40 hours a week. Other pools are facing similar shortages. 

Athens lifeguards have repeatedly complained that they are exhausted from the long hours, resulting in them not taking breaks for rest or meals. 

In a July 15 memo to Terri Moore, director of the Athens Arts, Parks and Recreation Department, lifeguards voiced their concerns, although they did so anonymously. 

One lifeguard wrote: “Imagine sitting in the 90+ degree heat several days in a row for up to eight hours a day. Then imagine your 15 minute break an hour is diminished to 15 every three hours. … There have been multiple days I stand up to rotate and my vision goes blurry from (what I am assuming) is heat exhaustion.”

Athens Public Pool is seen in Athens, Ohio, on Monday, July 26, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
Swimmers are seen during lap swim at the Athens City Pool, in Athens, Ohio, on Monday, July 26, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
Moore acknowledged the long hours. 

“We realized that our lifeguards were putting in a lot of hours,” she said. “With that said, they were working 40, 50 hours. Some were working 60 hours.”

While there are no legal restrictions on how many hours lifeguards can work, the long shifts raise concerns about their ability to stay alert in a job that requires they remain hyper focused while sitting out in the heat of summer.

The head lifeguards raised these concerns to city management, said Somnia Keesey, one of the lifeguards who quit last week.

“Our higher management kept on sending emails saying, ‘Hey, our guards are extremely fatigued. This is becoming not safe,’ because we’re in charge of watching for hours upon hours and we’re in charge of the entire safety of the facility and we’re absolutely exhausted.”

“… We would pretty much get no answers back. We would ask everyday, ‘Hey, what’s up? What’s going on?’ They’d (the head lifeguards) be like, ‘Nope. No call back. We didn’t get anything.’”

Lifeguards said that short staffing made it difficult to find the time to take breaks. 

“Today someone who was supposed to work came down with a fever,” a lifeguard wrote in the July memo to Moore. “We had to choose between getting one ten minute break every three hours or having enough guards watching the pool. This is unacceptable. The guards were held responsible for making this decision while also watching the pool and keeping patrons safe. This results in extra stress on the guards we do not need.”

Another lifeguard wrote: “We are constantly down guards and it shortens our ‘break’ even more. By ‘break’ I mean the stations of Rover and First aid, where we are expected to be able to hydrate, eat, put on sunscreen, do 20+ swim tests, and most importantly, BREATHE, all within 10 minutes before rotating and sitting in very hot sun for extensive periods of time.”

This also left them with little time to eat. Keesey said that all of the lifeguards were skipping full meals on long days. She said that missing so many meals affected her physical health.

“I know that during the season, I lost a lot of weight just because I was skipping out on full meals like lunch and dinner,” she said. “It was just kinda difficult to fit that into the schedule we were having day to day.”

Keesey said that because city management was not addressing their concerns, the lifeguards decided to come up with their own solution, which they included in the July memo to Moore.

The detailed proposal was based on research into practices at other city pools dealing with lifeguard shortages. It recommended removing open swim times from 12 p.m to 3 p.m, Monday through Thursday, to eliminate hours from the schedule. 

Athens Public Pool is seen in Athens, Ohio, on Monday, July 26, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
A lifeguard observes swimmers during lap swim while working at the Athens Public Pool, in Athens, Ohio, on Monday, July 26, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
Keesey said the head lifeguards met with Moore to discuss the memo and the proposal was denied. 

“I think that was a breaking point for a lot of other people too,” she said. “That solution we laid out, it wasn’t just us mindlessly complaining. We had the solutions laid out and we had the proof of it working in other facilities. It was just kinda a slap in the face just to see higher management just kinda ignore that and say no.”

The following week Keesey quit, followed by the others who either quit or gave notice last week. 

This forced the pool to dramatically scale back its hours and offer refunds to season membership holders. 

WOUB reached out to Moore multiple times for a second interview to address the more specific concerns raised by the lifeguards in the memo but did not receive a response. 

In an earlier interview, Moore expressed her gratitude for the lifeguards working such long shifts. 

“These are high school kids and college kids, so I feel very good about the work that they did and that they’ll continue to do,” she said. 

Keesey said quitting was not an easy decision. She worked for the city pool two summers ago and said it was one of the best summer experiences she has had. 

“It just felt like I was letting down the people who love to come to the pool so much and my co-workers,” she said, “but I knew that I couldn’t sacrifice anymore of my mental health or day to day well-being.”