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Duluth increases pay to recruit Park Point lifeguards

The outlook for summer swimmers is much improved.

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A lifeguard watches swimmers at the Park Point beach.
2003 file / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — A month ago, the odds of the city finding sufficient staff to watch over the Park Point beach this summer looked slim at best in the face of a nationwide lifeguard shortage.

But thanks to an offer of considerably higher pay and free training, it now looks like Duluth is on track to keep its lifeguard stand filled during regular beach hours. On Monday night, the Duluth City Council will take up a resolution that would approve a $52,500 contract with the Duluth Area Family YMCA to provide lifeguard services.

Cheryl Podtburg, risk manager for the local Y, said that as long as a current class of would-be lifeguards successfully completes certification, her organization should be able to deliver on its commitment to the city with a staff of nine or 10 people.

That's not say that she couldn't use several more lifeguards to more adequately staff the beach, as well as two indoor pools the Y operates in Duluth and Hermantown.

"We're sitting much better. We're no longer in danger of closing facilities. But we're definitely not to the point where we're comfortable enough to extend any hours or open additional pools. So, we can maintain right now, but we're still looking for some people for the membership branches," Podtburg said.

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For that reason, the Y intends to extend an offer of free training and a guaranteed job to any qualified candidate who successfully completes lifeguard certification at the Y. Another round of local training is on tap for June, and there are still plenty of openings. The Y typically charges $250 for its lifeguard class.

But for people willing to commit to working as a lifeguard for the Y, that fee will be waived. A free membership is another perk its Y employees enjoy.

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People enjoy a sunny day on Duluth's Park Point beach.
2015 file / Duluth News Tribune

In a fiercely competitive job market, Podtburg said the Y also has decided to offer higher hourly pay. The Y used to start lifeguards at $11 per hour, but those working the Park Point Beach this summer can expect to earn between $19 and $22 an hour. Hourly pay for lifeguards working one of the Y's indoor pools starts at a slightly more modest $16.

Normally, a $46,000 allocation of funds from Duluth's tourism tax fund would be sufficient to cover the cost of lifeguard service at the Park Point beach, said Alicia Watts, assistant manager of the city's parks and recreation department. But this year, the city will need to supplement that with other parks capital funds.

Watts said the less desirable alternative would have been to trim lifeguard hours.

"Being able to offer that same level of service is really important. Both the fire and parks departments are very supportive of it," Watts said.

Park Point is Duluth's only public beach with a lifeguard. People who swim elsewhere do so at their own risk.

"In general, we are among a very very small number of municipalities on the entire Great Lakes that do offer a space that has paid lifeguard services," said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of parks, properties and libraries. "So, there's not an established norm, we're actually exceeding most people's expectations."

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Assuming the City Council approves of the proposed contract with the Y Monday, the Park Point lifeguard tower will be staffed beginning Memorial Day weekend from noon to 5 p.m. The beach hours will be restricted to weekends until school is out, June 10. After that date, it will switch to a seven-day-per-week schedule.

SEE ALSO:
The Duluth YMCA still hopes to recruit and certify additional lifeguards in time for the summer outdoor swim season.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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