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Foreign Lifeguards Help New York Solve Worker Shortage - 2002-07-03

Dozens of lifeguards from Central and Eastern Europe are protecting swimmers at New York's beaches and pools this summer. A new program recruits foreigners to fill a chronic lifeguard shortage.

After a lifeguard blows a whistle, children jump into a large pool on a hot humid day, marking the beginning of the summer season at New York's public parks.

Youngsters, such as 10-year-old Danny Rivera, splash and laugh with friends. "It feels good because I was sticky and then I came here and I got cold and I'm fine," he said.

Every year, city officials struggle to keep pools, like this one, open. The city needs 1,200 lifeguards to supervise its 53 public pools and 23 kilometers of beach. An insufficient number of qualified swimmers apply for the job, and periodically, sections of the beach are closed and pool hours are reduced.

A lifeguard shortage affects much of the United States. In January, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg encouraged the city to look abroad to fill the positions. The idea follows an earlier program to hire foreign teachers for understaffed schools. The city spread the word about the lifeguard program on the Internet.

Bartosh Dybowski, 21, who studies physical education in Warsaw, Poland, learned about the job at his university. "I went to the office and they said they need lifeguards in New York. I said 'great, I'm a lifeguard, I can go,'" he said. Mr. Dybowski is one of 60 foreign lifeguards chosen to work in New York for the $10 per hour position. He received a three-month student visa and is living in an inexpensive hotel.

Officials say they expected to receive applicants from Australia and New Zealand, where it is currently winter. But many lifeguards there do not have vacation this time of year. Lifeguards did apply from Poland, the Czech Republic, the former Yugoslavia, and Russia.

Mr. Dybowski and fellow Polish lifeguard Maciek Gwizdek have spent hours walking the streets of New York, exploring the many diverse neighborhoods. Mr. Gwizdek says although it was confusing at first, he can now navigate his way around the big city. "I think it is a great adventure," he said. "It is an opportunity to meet many people here, to know something more about American people, American lifestyle."

Some New York officials have criticized the international lifeguard program, arguing the city should hire New Yorkers to fill the summer jobs.

But Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe says the city has no choice but to look abroad, and will begin its recruitment effort for next year even earlier. "Ultimately, we would like to recruit and train everybody locally," he said. "But until the day that they can all pass the test, we will do what we can to keep the beaches and pools safe and clean. New York is a city of immigrants. It is really part of our rich tradition."

In addition to passing the New York test, the visiting lifeguards are certified in their home countries. And they have to speak English as well.

At the opening of the city's pools, a large public party was held, with free sizzling hamburgers and live music.

Polish lifeguard, Arik Wojciechowski, 24, attended the party.

A marketing student who welcomes the opportunity to improve his English, Mr. Wojciechowski, like most students, says he savors the opportunity to spend a summer outdoors in a foreign country. "I really love to swim; I really like to help people," he said. "I love kids. And I know in the near future I will have to work. I am not going to be a lifeguard. So it is my last summer where I can enjoy [myself]."

As the children play and swim in the pool, the foreign lifeguards join their American counterparts, all perched on high chairs, making sure everyone is safe in the water.

But New York is still nearly 100 lifeguards short for the summer and recruitment continues.