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City of Toronto lifeguards’ pay under review amid staff shortage that has cancelled swim lessons
June 27, 2022

Toronto is reviewing what it pays city lifeguards after their union said below-standard wages are contributing to an aquatics staff shortage that has cancelled lessons for 1,140 swimmers.

CUPE Local 79 has, for years, pushed the city to boost pay for lifeguards and swim instructors, given the responsibilities and qualifications demanded, said local president Casey Barnett.

Toronto pays lifeguards $17.21 an hour, while swim instructors get $17.80 per hour. Lifeguard pay hasn’t kept up with inflation; it was $14.55 in 2011 and $13.71 in 2008.

Barnett said Friday the union “has invoked its right to request a review of aquatics positions and their compensation under the Job Evaluation program,” and has asked for “an emergency meeting to review wages in the hopes of preventing further program cancellations.”

Shane Gerrard, a city spokesperson, told the Star that the collective agreement between the city and union that set pay grades “provides the mechanism for a request for re-evaluation.

“The City is in receipt of a request from the union to review aquatic position wages, and, in accordance with the collective agreement, that process is now underway.”

Governments across North America are struggling to staff pools after the COVID-19 pandemic shut lifeguard training programs.

That blocked the pipeline of newly qualified and recertified lifeguards. Some people qualified to lifeguard moved on to other jobs while pools were closed and have not returned.

The city of St. Catharines last year boosted lifeguard starting pay to $18.64 an hour to attract more staff and has not had to cancel swim lessons , the St. Catharines Standard reported.

In New York, reacting to staffing shortages, Gov. Kathy Hochul boosted starting pay of state lifeguards to $20 (U.S.), or $25.96 (Canadian) per hour. New York City, where lifeguards start at $20.74 (Canadian), has been forced to cancel a host of swim programs due to a staff shortage.

Annika Kapral, a City of Toronto lifeguard for the past three years, says wages are the main reason she’s not returning.

“Our pay really hasn’t gone up that much and it’s not really worth being a lifeguard right now,” said Kapral, noting the requirement for updated National Lifesaving certification plus C.P.R. training plus city training programs.

Friends earn almost as much working retail, and as much or more in hospitality jobs where they get tips, Kapral said.

After the city this week announced the cancellation of 169 learn-to-swim courses for about 1,140 people, the city’s director of community recreation told the Star he believes pandemic impacts, not lifeguard wages, are driving staff shortages.

Pickering, which pays lifeguards $19.70 per hour to start, has filled only about half its aquatic positions, resulting in the cancellation or reduction of some public swim sessions.

Mississauga, which starts lifeguards at $18.22 per hour, does not expect a staffing impact on aquatic programming but says it might have to limit capacity at some public pools.

Oakville, which starts lifeguards at $17.03 per hour, has not had to reduce any swim activities.

Asked about the issue Thursday, Mayor John Tory said: “On the question of pay I can only say that there has been no complaint registered with me.

“I want to get on with making sure we take advantage of the training programs that are back up and running, and hire the ones we need to get these programs back up,” Tory said, “and I’m more than willing to see that our staff that deal with labour relations matters entertain that subject.”