Staffing Shortages And Delayed Action Forced Cutbacks At Athens City Pool

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — A few months ago Athens officials made it clear they wanted the city pool fully open this summer. But halfway through the season, they were forced to cut hours significantly and offer refunds to season pass holders. 

This was a direct result of several lifeguards quitting, frustrated by working long hours due to staff shortages. The director of the parks and recreation department, which oversees pool operations, also quit, raising similar concerns over inadequate staffing.

Staffing shortages led to lifeguards working without breaks for rest, food or water, raising concerns about the their alertness to properly supervise and protect the safety of pool patrons. 

Lifeguards voiced their concerns and suggested cutting pool hours. The parks and recreation director took these concerns to higher up city officials and said she felt ignored. Conversations among city officials seemed more focused on keeping the pool open rather than the safety issues raised by exhausted lifeguards. 

The problems at the pool reflect similar staff shortages in the Athens Arts, Parks & Recreation Department. Multiple positions have remained vacant. As early as September 2020, Terri Moore, the department’s director, reported to the Athens Recreation Advisory Board that four full-time positions and six part-time positions had not been filled. In an Oct. 2, 2020, memo to Police Chief Tom Pyle, who was then serving as the city’s interim safety director, Moore again noted the unfilled positions and explained the critical need for them to be filled.

One of those positions was for the person who directly oversees operation of the city pool. The position ended up being filled, but shortly after the pool opened at the end of May, it was vacant again.

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. Athens city pool lifeguards complained to officials about short staffing, leading to long hours and limited breaks, which left them feeling exhausted. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
Coming off of summer 2020, when the pool was closed the entire season because of the pandemic, city officials, Pyle and Mayor Steve Patterson, were adamant on opening the pool this summer. 

In an email from Pyle to Moore on May 20, he wrote: “The Mayor has impressed on me that failure is not an option for the City Pool being ready to open as scheduled.” 

Moore said this put considerable pressure on her. Moore and her colleagues in the parks and recreation department had to take on responsibilities at the pool in addition to their regular jobs because the person responsible for day-to-day operation of the pool left the job on June 14.

Moore said they started the season with 25 lifeguards and three head lifeguards and they were comfortable with this, but she recognized there would be difficulties moving forward. There were no conversations about cutting back pool hours but it was discussed that they may not be able to offer all services, such as private swim lessons, due to short staffing.

Even with the cutback in services, some lifeguards were still working well over 40 hours a week, which sparked frustrations. 

Parks and recreation Program Manager Erin Helms, one of Moore’s colleagues tasked with helping oversee the pool, recognized this and expressed concern in an email to Human Resources Director Ron Lucas on July 12.

She wrote: “One lifeguard just put their two weeks’ notice in late last week due to feeling they aren’t being compensated enough for the job. I am very concerned that this will continue to trend IF we don’t take some action. The pool staff work nearly 40 hours a week and make on average $9-$9.25 hourly. … It’s been a suggestion from our head management staff at the pool (head lifeguards and head cashier) that we seriously consider a pay increase.”

On July 12, a city parks and recreation official requested a pay raise for lifeguards.
On July 12, a city parks and recreation official requested a pay raise for lifeguards. Click image to enlarge. [Email provided by Terri Moore]
Moore signed off on the increase, which raised the pay range to $10.50 to $11.25 an hour. 

The same day, Moore met with the head lifeguards, who suggested that pool hours be adjusted to reduce lifeguards hours. Moore did not want to change pool hours yet without first considering other options such as strategically closing areas of the pool during open swim, such as the tot pool, dive well and slides. 

Meanwhile, Lucas was working to fill the position of Facility Operations Manager, the position responsible for day-to-day pool operations. 

The position was posted in May because they knew the person in this role was leaving, but they could not hire anyone until he left. They had a number of applicants, but all declined to interview as of July 15. 

“When we have applicants and we schedule interviews with them then they decline to interview, now we have to go to a whole new set of applicants. So, that takes time,” Lucas said about the difficulties filling the position. 

Moore tendered her resignation with 30 days notice on July 15. She had been considering resigning since April but said she reached a breaking point when it was clear the pool supervisor position was not going to be filled. 

“I think there are often times I’ve brought things forward, whether it’s this situation or other situations, that I’ve simply not been heard,” Moore told WOUB. “I have been voicing my concerns about staffing shortages in the Arts, Parks & Recreation Department for well over a year and a half.” 

In a July 16 email to Helms, Moore promised to move the lifeguards’ concerns from the July 12 meeting forward: “As a next step, I plan to meet with the SSD (safety service director) and Mayor when they return next week to discuss the staffing concerns and pool schedule.” 

Less than 30 minutes after Moore sent this email to Helms, Moore received a memo from the lifeguards that contained a proposal for cutting hours at the pool. It was based on research on practices at other pools in southeastern Ohio. Also included were anonymous statements from lifeguards about being tired, not taking breaks and skipping meals. 

One lifeguard wrote in the memo: “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 and 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.” 

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.”

Athens Public Pool is seen in Athens, Ohio, on Monday, July 26, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
The city has been forced to significantly scale back pool hours and offer refunds to season pass holders because so many lifeguards have quit in frustration. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
Moore met with the lifeguards after receiving the memo and felt there were no immediate concerns regarding safety. 

“As far as patron safety, I know that the lifeguards were on point as far as doing their duties,” Moore told WOUB. “I would have made the decision to change hours without the safety service director and mayor if there were immediate safety concerns.” 

Nevertheless, the lifeguards were still working extensive hours, so Moore reached out to Pyle and Patterson about adjusting the pool hours. In a July 22 email, she sent a proposed reduction in pool hours.

She noted in the email that some lifeguards were working upwards of 60 hours a week. “As a result, some have quit, morale is low and others are planning an early exit if there’s no relief,” she wrote.

It takes about 25-28 lifeguards plus two to three head lifeguards to operate the pool effectively, she wrote, but she only had 18 total. She had been trying to hire more, but there was a shortage of applicants, a problem facing pools nationwide.

“The current situation is dire,” she wrote.

In an email reply the following day, Pyle wrote: “The bottom line is you have to do what you have to do, however, APR (Arts, Parks and Recreation) and specifically you will need to be the front line for questions and concerns that come from the public.”

In a July 23 email, a city parks and recreation official is told to "do what you have to do" regarding adjusting pool hours.
In a July 23 email, a city parks and recreation official is told to “do what you have to do” regarding adjusting pool hours. Click image to enlarge. [Email provided by Terri Moore]
Moore said that she felt that Pyle and other city officials offered her no support.

WOUB reached out to Pyle multiple times for comment on this story but did not receive a response.

“I absolutely take responsibility. I am the department director. The responsibility always falls and should always fall to the department head,” Moore told WOUB. “But, as far as taking responsibility solely, as I feel I was put out there to do? No. Some of these things are bigger than this unfortunate situation. That’s a responsibility of the organization.” 

Moore drafted a news release with the new hours to publish. But it was too late. Before she could publish it, multiple lifeguards had quit. Moore acknowledged that she should have better communicated with the lifeguards that she was in the process of cutting back hours to address their concerns.

So instead of cutting a few hours a day from the schedule, she now had no choice but to close the pool the week of July 26, significantly cut hours for the rest of the season and offer refunds to season pass holders. The release was published on social media and the city website July 23. 

Patterson said he was shocked to see the pool was closing for the week and drastically scaling back its hours. 

“Nobody briefed me that that was gonna happen,” Patterson said. “I had no idea. I found out reading the press release. And I am going, ‘This isn’t what was agreed upon at all.’”

Patterson reached out to Moore through email the day after the release was posted, questioning why the hours were different than they originally agreed upon in the email thread with Pyle. 

“I should have updated you on Friday when it was reported to me that we had additional guards quit … . The additional reduction in staff did not safely support coverage for the schedule proposed in my email on Thursday,” Moore wrote back to Patterson. 

Patterson said he has been in communication with lifeguards who quit to gain insight on the situation and encourage them to work for the pool again next summer. 

“My role right now is to regain trust because I think that there was unfortunately a lack of trust that they had,” Patterson said. “I think a lot of it had to do with misinformation that they were getting.” 

To ensure this never happens again, Patterson hopes to overhire lifeguards in the future. He said in the past, the pool has traditionally hired over 30 lifeguards. 

Patterson also plans to receive weekly or biweekly reports from the pool because it was too late for him to intervene this summer by the time he was made aware of this situation. 

Meanwhile, Moore has her own regrets.

“I want to let the lifeguards know that I hold that empathy and apologize to those that feel like, not just a blanket apology, but apologize to those that felt that I did not hear them,” she said. “I want to do that. I’m trying to figure out a way to do that in a way that is sincere and not generic.”