Pandemic-related staff shortage disrupts a childhood rite at Portland community center

Mt. Scott Community Center Aquatic Program Supervisor Andy Amato looks into an empty pool where families and children normally take swimming lessons, January 19, 2022. Lessons at Mt. Scott’s pool as well as other indoor pools by Portland Parks & Recreation due temporarily paused due to staff shortages, but could resume in early February.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Andy Amato started as the Water Sports Director at the Mt. Scott Community Center & Indoor Pool in southeast Portland in January 2020—when COVID-19 was just a murmur on another continent.

Now, two years into the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to disrupt so many milestones. For Amato, that meant temporarily pausing an important part of childhood: swimming lessons.

He just didn’t have enough hands on deck.

In taking on this new role, Amato entered a deep-rooted community. Half of its employees have worked at Mt. Scott for over 20 years. They have given children swimming lessons and then helped those same children earn their lifeguard certifications. Now many of these kids are working in the pool.

“To see it come full circle is just really exciting. Just knowing that you had that impact, that you were able to build that relationship and get them so excited about learning to swim and excited in the water that now they want to give that back in return,” Amato said.

Mt. Scott Pool typically employs 87 lifeguards and pool attendants. But with people calling in sick, getting laid off, or looking for full-time jobs elsewhere, that’s down to 25.

Amato and his staff have stepped in to help where they can. Two weeks ago, Amato was a lifeguard for three days to keep the pool open because he was understaffed. But this commitment has its price. According to Amato, many of his employees suffer from physical and emotional exhaustion.

In early January, Amato had to make a tough decision: cancel swimming lessons.

The classes require more pool staff than other water programs such as aquatic fitness classes, lap swimming, or game swimming. Amato reallocated his remaining workforce to keep these programs going.

Mt. Scott Community Center swimming lessons are currently on hold due to staff shortages, as revealed on January 18, 2022.  Other Portland Parks & Recreation indoor pools are also on pause and are expected to resume in early February.

Mt. Scott Community Center swimming lessons are currently on hold due to staff shortages, as revealed on January 18, 2022. Other Portland Parks & Recreation indoor pools are also on pause and are expected to resume in early February.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Money isn’t the issue. Two years ago, Portland voters approved a local option levy to support community centers like Mt. Scott. The center therefore has the financial means to offer swimming courses and other basic services.

They just don’t have the people to do the work.

Josh Lehner, a state economist, said this is a challenge many leisure and service businesses in Oregon are currently struggling with.

“We hear it from some of the ski hills. Not all slopes are open all the time, partly due to work. I know some community centers have restricted pool times for labor availability,” he said. “You see restaurants that are closed a few days a week where they used to be open seven days a week. This is certainly one of the ways companies are tackling the challenges of the workplace.”

Amato is frustrated. But he’s also hopeful. He tries to guide his team through a time of general uncertainty.

“You keep thinking, how are we going to get through this? You just stay positive about it. It will get better, we will bring more staff here,” he said. “Not being able to offer this program is very difficult for us at the moment. We’re hoping it will only be a couple of weeks off and we’ll be able to slowly get it up and running again.”

Oregon is a state with rivers and lakes and the Pacific Ocean on its doorstep. In practice, water safety is a crucial skill. But beyond the practical, COVID-19 is also erasing existential milestones. For many, swimming lessons are a special part of childhood. It’s when a child’s parents and community cheer them on, because whether the child knows it or not, they’re learning how to live in the world.

Adults swim at the Mt. Scott Community Center on January 18, 2022. Poolside swimming lessons are suspended due to staff shortages, although adult water fitness remains open.

Adults swim at the Mt. Scott Community Center on January 18, 2022. Poolside swimming lessons are suspended due to staff shortages, although adult water fitness remains open.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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