Eric Aitken

Eric Aitken, Tuolumne County library and recreation manager, cleaning the public swimming pool in Twain Harte prior to its opening in 2016.

Public swimming pools and other summer recreation programs budgeted and staffed by the Tuolumne County Recreation Department are on temporary hold due to staffing issues that include COVID-19 concerns, Eric Aitken, the county recreation supervisor, said Wednesday.

Lifeguard shortages have been a problem in recent years preceding coronavirus restrictions, which impacted all summer recreation offerings last summer. Four county public pools began operating on a rotating schedule in June 2016 due to lifeguard shortages.

Plans for this summer’s recreation programs — everything from previous offerings like basketball camp, martial arts camp, cardio and strength boot camp, family and self-defense classes to swimming lessons and public swims — are still being formulated, Aitken said between interviewing prospective lifeguard candidates.

“Our intention is to do what we can, as close to pre-COVID summers like 2019, as possible,” he said. “There are some COVID issues, but the biggest thing right now preventing us from opening is a lack of staff. We’re having a really hard time hiring.”

A lot of factors are contributing to the current summer recreation workers shortage, Aitken said. One is the jobs on offer are seasonal positions, not full-time benefited positions. Another is the fact that COVID concerns kept the county from offering most summer recreation programs last year.

“Essentially we’ve been closed for nearly two years,” Aitken said. “A major part of it is these staff that we previously had, they have moved on to other things, and some have moved out of Tuolumne County. In a small community, our pool of applicants is already small to begin with. It’s not just one program. It’s the entire department having this difficult time.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began early last year, each summer the county would seek to fill 75 to 85 seasonal job openings to run all the county’s summer recreation programs, Aitken said. 

This summer, the county Recreation Department has budgeted for the same 75 to 85 openings, and as of Wednesday afternoon, “probably 25 have been filled,” Aitken said. “So there are still about 50 openings unfilled.”

Aitken said he has reported to the Board of Supervisors on the situation, and he’s been on the radio to draw attention to the situation. He and his staff have also been getting and responding to hundreds of phone calls and emails from people with questions about recreation offerings this summer.

Another thing missing this summer due to the staffing shortage is the county’s summer recreation guide with all the programs, dates, times and prices.

“Unfortunately due to our lack of staff we haven't been able to produce that,” Aitken said. “At this point we don't have anything finalized.”

The 25 summer recreation job openings that have been filled are spread across programs, including aquatics, programs at Standard Park, and other summer recreation programs, Aitken said.

“We’re not at a point yet where we have enough staff to open anything,” he said.

Tuolumne County normally oversees four public swimming pools in Columbia, Sonora, Tuolumne and Twain Harte. This summer, for sure the Columbia pool will not be open due to maintenance that has to occur, Aitken said.

With the Columbia pool closed for the summer, the county recreation department budgeted 40 seasonal jobs to staff the other three pools. Ten of the job openings have been filled, so as of Wednesday afternoon there were still about 30 openings left to fill to staff and open the pools in Sonora, Tuolumne and Twain Harte.

No opening dates have been announced or targeted yet for the three pools, Aitken said.

“A normal season, we would normally open the pools about June 14,” he said. “We’re hoping to be as close to that as possible, but there’s a chance that may be delayed a week or so, depending on staff. 

“When the pools do open, they will be open on limited hours with limited staffing. With the few staff we have, we’re trying to figure out what we will be able to do. I do want to say, with aquatics, our number one priority is swim lessons.”

As the county hires more people and the recreation department is able to bring on more staff, the plan is to expand summer recreation offerings for the programs that open, Aitken said.

“We may only open slightly to begin with, depending on the amount of staff we have,” he said. “As we bring more staff on we will continue to add more programs and more hours. I see this summer as a phased-in approach. We’ll do what we can and add what we can as we go, rather than waiting until we’re fully staffed to open.”

Asked about the myriad of summer recreation programs the county typically offers aside from aquatics, Aitken said that some camp instructors and other instructors have concerns due to COVID, and “a few camps won’t be offered right away due to that.”

Two sure things as of Wednesday are that the county will offer soccer camp and baseball camp, Aitken said.

“Right those are the only two confirmed,” he said. “The big holdup for indoor activities is COVID concerns, so we have really been pushing the outdoor programs. Now that it looks like COVID restrictions are going to be loosening up, we're working on the indoor programs, too.”

In the meantime, Aitken says the county has already completed one American Red Cross training course for prospective lifeguards, and a second course is in progress. As long as individuals are interested in taking the course and people are signing up to take it, the county will continue offering American Red Cross lifeguard training.

For more information about American Red Cross lifeguard training, call the Tuolumne County Recreation Department at (209) 533-5663. To view current Tuolumne County summer recreation job openings visit the county job openings page at https://www.tuolumnecounty.ca.gov/923/Current-Employment-Opportunities online.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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