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Lifeguard shortage has become 'critical' amid Russia-Ukraine war, wage competition

American Lifeguard Association Public Service Spokesperson Wyatt Werneth joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss factors creating a lifeguard shortage in the U.S., including a lack of J-1 visas, lifeguard recruitment, and how the shortage is impacting summer activities.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: Lifeguards are scarce this summer. And it's a dangerous situation. About 1/3 of public pools are affected by the shortage, forcing them either to reduce their hours or close altogether. And that's not all. Beaches and water parks are feeling the impact, too. For more on this, we want to bring in Wyatt Werneth. He's American Lifeguard Association public service spokesperson. Wyatt, it's great to see you. It looks like you're in a much better location than we are here in New York City right now. But Wyatt, this is a very serious issue. We've been tracking it over the last couple of weeks. Have we seen any improvement?

WYATT WERNETH: Actually, not. This is what we consider a critical lifeguard shortage in America. And where this time, every year, we normally have a full complement of lifeguards, we're not seeing it due to the pandemic, the cancelation of the J-1 work visa, where we have students coming from overseas that were mainly Russian and Ukrainian. So the war is not helping, as well as the competitive pay rates. So we're not seeing the turnout we're used to.

DAVE BRIGGS: How severe is the shortage? What's been the impact from what you understand on public pools across the country? And where is it worst?

WYATT WERNETH: Well, it's-- usually, it's worse in the areas that rely on the summertime break. You get into the water [INAUDIBLE] either cold or not comfortable being in the water. And where it's impacting is that we've already had a couple of drownings in areas where lifeguards should be and would be. But because of the shortage and the lifeguards not showing up, we've already had the drownings. So that's tragic.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: And people also need to know that, obviously, it's not just public pools. It's beaches. It's water parks, organizations that have pools like the YMCA. Is there any relief in sight in terms of any sort of support you're getting, something to try and at least ramp up getting more lifeguards on deck, considering how much training they need?

WYATT WERNETH: Well, let's take a look. There's three different types of lifeguards. There's the water parks with lazy rivers and the slides. You have the pools, of course. And then the open water, which is like this, or ponds and lakes. The open water isn't really impacted as much because they have a year round compliment in a lot of areas. And when we had a shortage, we would actually just work longer and take some overtime.

The ones that are being hit are the ones that rely on the summertime and the kids have come out, and they have about 110 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day. They're the ones taking the impact with closures, and they're even having to cut down on hours.

SEANA SMITH: Wyatt, how much of this has to do with the fact that we haven't seen a huge increase in wages for lifeguards in a lot of areas versus the fact that we saw a lot of these training facilities close during the pandemic and were simply just behind on that?

WYATT WERNETH: Well, that's the number one reason because we're not paying as much as other jobs, retail, or even in the restaurant business nowadays. So it's tough to have to go through all the training, be a strong swimmer. To do that, it's easier to just go and get another job at one of these other locations. So we're not seeing the turnout that we would. And so what we're going to have to do is, we're gonna have to readjust.

Our thing is, swim, America. Learn to swim, America. You can't swim in front of a lifeguard, learn to swim. And assign a water watcher, someone who can watch your group. Make sure that people are in lifejackets who don't know how to swim. And let's kind of regroup if we have to. And that is, if you can't find that lifeguard, your chances of drowning in front of a lifeguard are one in 18 million. So try to find a lifeguard. But if not, assign a water watcher.

DAVE BRIGGS: Good advice for parents. But obviously, this summer is going to be tough. We're looking at 1/3 of public pools impacted. You mentioned beaches. But let's get beyond this summer. Is there any long-term solutions to fix this shortage?

WYATT WERNETH: We know someone said that we're experiencing a problem. We can't do anything about it, except for management. And we're just going to have to get through this. We don't have any predictions. We're going to do the best that we can and keep moving forward. And hopefully, they'll come out. We're the fourth element. You have police, fire, EMS, and lifeguards. We just need people to recognize it's a great job. Come out. It is a career. I retired in our local community. And you can make a retirement out of it as well. The president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, was a lifeguard. So it can be done.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: And as you mentioned, a lot of people probably didn't make that connection between, as you said, what's happening in Russia and the Ukraine with the J-1 visas and them making such a large pool of the lifeguards in this country. In terms of where, perhaps, the next batch of lifeguards could come from, where do you see that coming from?

WYATT WERNETH: Well, you know, I think it's trend-based. It's kind of like, there's going to be a whole lot of people going out to join the Navy after "Top Gun," things like that. When I joined, it was all because of "Baywatch." And we were really excited about getting out there and having that lifestyle. We need something to respark that, to get people excited about the beach again. And until then, we just got to hope and do the best that we can and keep recruiting and putting out the word. And that's about all we can do. There's not a whole lot when you don't have people very excited about what we're doing.

SEANA SMITH: Yeah, Wyatt, what are you doing to recruit and get out the word right now? Because certainly, this conversation and this headline has been getting more and more traction over the last couple of weeks. But I'm sure that this is an issue that you've seen coming now for several months.

WYATT WERNETH: Well, you know, being a lifeguard is hard to obtain. You have to go through a lot of training. You have to be a great swimmer and physical shape. So we always had the elite of the group. If I had 100 people come out, I'd only hire about 40. And that was before the pandemic. So now what we're trying to do is we're, obviously, looking at raising the cost-- or the pay rate so that we can compete with the other jobs out there. We're doing sign-on bonuses. I've seen it as high as $1,400 to sign up.

SEANA SMITH: Wow.

WYATT WERNETH: And as well as that, we're actually taking the lifeguards that are already on duty and asking them to go out and recruit. And if they bring in some friends, we give them a sign-up bonus.