NewsPalm Beach County


Lifeguard shortage leaves some South Florida beaches unguarded

A Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue lifeguard on duty on April 22, 2022.jpg
Posted at 12:58 PM, Apr 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-22 12:58:00-04

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — With more visitors and permanent residents on our beaches, Ocean Rescue has a lot to keep up with, especially as there’s a nationwide shortage of lifeguards.

"I’m getting my vitamin sea and D," said Gary Kowalsky, a Connecticut snowbird who owns a townhome in Juno Beach.

Kowalsky is at the pier every day.

"It’s been busy. Oh yeah, sure it’s been busy," Kowalsky said.

Following a two-year pandemic and lockdowns, Palm Beach County beaches have been packed this year.

"We’ve had large crowds the whole season, especially Easter weekend," said Chief Julia Leo with Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue.

Large crowds mean meeting state safety standards for Ocean Rescue.

"Each beach we do have staffing standards and if we can’t meet those minimum standards, then unfortunately that means that we have to leave a beach unguarded that day," Leo said.

A handful of times this year, no lifeguards have been on duty at Coral Cove Park in Tequesta. Peanut Island has remained unguarded since last October.

"We have been having a hard time recruiting. So we’re trying to offer more lifeguarding classes at our pools. We’ve been posting our job advertisements on social media," Leo said.

Leo said the shortage of lifeguards is a national issue, partly because of canceled certification courses during the pandemic.

"Has this problem been exacerbated by inflation and the rising cost of living here in Florida?" WPTV journalist Michelle Quesada asked Leo.

"Well, in Palm Beach County there is a high cost of living," Leo answered.

Add the cost to become certified.

"It costs about $300 and you’re not getting paid for that time," Leo said.

The starting salary for a seasonal part-time Ocean Rescue lifeguard in Palm Beach County is $17.70 an hour and $19.90 for a full-time position. That’s a $41,000 annual salary in a county where each city’s average one-bedroom apartment rental costs at least $1,500 dollars a month, amounting to about 43% of a starting lifeguard’s annual salary going to rent.

"I feel terrible for the kids. Even back home in Connecticut the cost of living is going through the roof," Kowalsky said.

"It's a struggle," Leo said.

The chief added the need for higher pay is not being ignored.

"It is a long process for a government agency to increase the salary, whereas in the private sector they can do that more rapidly and a higher increase than the government agencies can," Leo said.

For now, Ocean Rescue is getting the word out about a dozen part-time and full-time positions open to safeguard our beaches.

"Everybody is enjoying the beach and everybody has a good time at the beach and we’re just hoping that we can keep on recruiting more lifeguards that realize what a great profession this is for people," Leo said.

Leo added that despite the spike in beachgoers this year, rescues have not increased.

To see a list of lifeguarding courses in our area, click here.