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'It's really a struggle': Portland Parks & Recreation suspends swim lessons due to staffing shortage

The city is looking to hire hundreds of swim teachers and lifeguards between now and the summer.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Staffing shortages have become an issue in so many industries, including those that serve the community. For Portland Parks & Recreation, the staffing struggle is having a particular impact on its aquatic program.

“We're operating at about 25% staffing to basically keep our pools going,” said aquatic program supervisor Andy Amato.

Beginning in March 2020, the pandemic shuttered the city's community centers for 15 months. Amato said the 75% staffing gap was left by lifeguards and swim instructors who didn't return after the shutdown. The staff, including Amato, have been filling in wherever they can.

“I myself was on the guard stand several times last week just to make sure we could keep the doors open for our patrons who come in,” said Amato. “It's really a struggle right now.”

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To compensate for staffing shortages, the city suspended its entire swim lesson program. Amato said teaching swim lessons requires many more employees than the lap swim and exercise classes that they’re able to continue.

“Having to suspend our swim lesson program was a really tough decision for us,” said Amato. “Our ultimate goal is, we want to make every child water safe in Portland. We really want them to learn those skills.”

To do that, Amato said they need teachers and lifeguards 16 and older to apply. They're also looking ahead to summer when they hope to reopen the city's seven outdoor pools.

“If we don't have the staff to operate all our programs, we're just not going to be able to,” said Amato.

Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) supervisor Amourie Downing said funding for jobs is not the issue. She noted the city's recent parks levy actually increased their budget.

“This is a wonderful place to work,” said Downing. “The issue is simply that we are having a hard time recruiting staff to come and work, with the availability of folks and the safety restrictions that COVID has provided as well.”

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It's the same issue so many industries are facing now. Amato said PP&R will train qualified candidates for the job, whether its teaching swim lessons or being a lifeguard.

“You need to like water and have some swimming skills but we will help you along!” said Amato. “We are just looking for people that are excited and want to be here and help support the community.”