An 84 year-old man drowned while he swam at an unmonitored section of Coney Island Beach last week as an ongoing city lifeguard shortage leaves large spans of the popular spot unmonitored, even during the busiest days of summer. His is just the most recent sign of a problem that has been getting progressively worse in Brooklyn’s coastal communities, some residents said.
“What’s happening this summer is inexcusable,” Ida Sanoff, a longtime resident of Brighton Beach and an active community member. “The only ones open are bays 1 and 2, and sometimes 3 and the amusement area and outside of that, there’s nothing for blocks and blocks and blocks.”
Residents of the Coney Island peninsula said the lifeguard problem has continued to grow worse over the years, and this year is at an ultimate low with huge stretches of the beach — from Coney Island Avenue to the New York Aquarium and again west of the Amusement District until the very end of the beach near W. 37th Street — dotted with vacant lifeguard chairs.
“We never used to have enough lifeguards in June but we usually had them for the whole summer,” explained Sanoff. “The last few years, they started disappearing the first week of August, but at least we had some bays there. This year, we’ve been totally abandoned.”
These nearly half-mile stretches of beach do not have a single lifeguard, with the water monitors concentrated in the neighborhood’s buzzing amusement district. Residents who want to take a dip near their homes have to have to walk several blocks to find a safe part of the beach.
“We have had the same complaints here for years and the Parks Department totally ignores us, they say we can’t do anything, it’s a problem with the lifeguards,” said Sanoff, who further claims that the problems haven’t been resolved due to conflict between the city agency and the lifeguards’ union.
“Whoever’s running it is getting away with murder here,” she said. “This problem didn’t just crop up yesterday.”
This year’s shortage is only made worse by the ongoing heat wave roasting the northeast. High temperatures are pushing city dwellers toward the beaches — even if they’re closed.
Beachgoers are still permitted on the city’s sands when sections are closed — they just aren’t supposed to go in the water, so the city’s Parks Department is unauthorized to rope off sections of Coney Island Beach in their entirety. However, the green space gurus are required to post signage warning potential swimmers that the water is dangerous and that there are no lifeguards on duty.
A Parks Department employee, who spoke with Brooklyn Paper while working on Coney Island Beach, speculated that this year’s high volume of unattended lifeguard chairs could be due to summer workers instead opting for remote work, or jobs with higher wages.
Coney Island Councilmember Ari Kagan said this isn’t a new problem on the peninsula, as the city has long struggled to retain lifeguards for reasons such as low pay and lack of recruiting. The first-term pol added that many city kids might not know how to swim because they don’t have access to pools — therefore, limiting the pool of applicants for the summer position.
Working as a lifeguard also isn’t the most alluring job, Kagan said, especially during this summer’s scorching weather.
“There are objective and subjective reasons for such a shortage,” he told Brooklyn Paper. “So, am I happy about it? Of course not.”
Looking ahead to next summer, Kagan vowed to continue to raise the issue with the council’s Committee on Parks and Recreation, and to work toward more aggressive recruiting tactics across the city. He also lauded Mayor Eric Adams’ recent work to make the job more enticing.
“I expect next year to be different due to salary increase, due to more energetic and aggressive recruitment efforts by the Parks Department,” Kagan said.
Earlier this summer, Mayor Adams announced a deal his administration made with the District Council 37, the lifeguards’ union, to raise their pay to $19.46 per hour, in addition to paying guards an extra retentions bonus in September if they worked every week of the season.
“Every New Yorker deserves to safely enjoy our city’s public pools and beaches this summer and my team has taken extraordinary measures to make that happen,” he said in a statement issued July 6. “Today we reached a deal with the lifeguard union to address the immediate needs of our pools.”
The Mayor’s Office also created a class of city lifeguards who are relegated to mini pools only, which will allow the city to open the imperative cooling centers while also opening up room for experienced lifeguards to patrol the beaches and full-sized city pools.
District Council 37 said some lifeguards left once they realized state guards in other parts of New York were being paid more. In June, Governor Hochul announced a pay raise for upstate employees- bumping them from $14.95 per hour to $20 per hour, and lifeguards at downstate facilities moved from $18.15 per hour to $22 per hour. Meanwhile, the NYC Parks website advertises a minimum wage of $16.
Adams said that while the policies he has put in place are a step in the right direction, the city has been unable to safely reopen its pools and beaches this summer due to inefficiencies that need to be addressed, but did not elaborate on what those reforms would be.
“While these changes are a step in the right direction, our ability to safely open beaches and pools has been impacted by a national lifeguard shortage and has also been held back by inefficient practices that are in dire need of further reform,” the mayor said. “We will continue to work closely to correct course on policies that don’t serve New Yorkers and pool resources from all agencies to ensure a fun and safe summer.”
However, the shortages continue to persist regardless of the increased pay. The Mayor’s Office did not respond by press time to a request for comment from Brooklyn Paper on the results they have seen from the July announcement.
A Parks Department spokesperson responded to Brooklyn Paper’s request for comment after deadline.
“We know that New Yorkers rely on our City beaches as their summer vacation destinations, and we are proud that we offer free access across the city to help New Yorkers safely stay cool on hot summer days,” the spokesperson said. “Our goal is always to offer as much swimming access as possible. While we wish that we could provide coverage across our 14 miles of beaches every day, we have to deal with the reality of the national lifeguard shortage and respond to those numbers on a daily basis.”