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Park Authority grapples with staffing challenges during busy summer

A lifeguard at The Water Mine in Reston (via Fairfax County Park Authority/YouTube)

A shortage of seasonal workers has the Fairfax County Park Authority straining to stay afloat at the time of year when many of its facilities — from swimming pools to the Scotts Run Nature Preserve — tend to be busiest.

The agency announced last week that the visitor center at Huntley Meadows Park in Hybla Valley will have reduced hours throughout August, citing difficulties in recruiting staff. While the park itself will remain open from dawn to dusk, the visitor center’s indoor exhibits and public restrooms are currently only available from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Though that has been the most long-lasting impact, the capacity limitations have also forced facilities to close early or not open at all some days, and some programs have been curtailed “on occasion,” FCPA spokesperson Judith Pedersen said in a statement to FFXnow:

It has been a very difficult season for the Park Authority in terms of hiring seasonal employees. In large measure, a shortage of applicants and COVID-19 illnesses have made it hard to staff our facilities and programs. On occasion we have had to close facilities or curtail programs or classes due to staff shortages. Conversely, our staff has stepped up to fill those gaps, work extra shifts or manage the situation to avoid closures and cancellations. We continue to be challenged with a shortage of lifeguards both for indoor and outdoor aquatic facilities.

According to Pedersen, the park authority can have as many as 1,600 to 1,700 non-merit employees, meaning part-time, seasonal or temporary workers. The agency hires 600 to 700 workers for each summer season, which runs from May through September.

Though the park authority didn’t provide the specific number of vacancies it has, its webpage for summer hires lists 15 different kinds of available positions, from lifeguards and camp leaders to a Sully Historic Site maintenance assistant.

The park authority has offered $100 sign-up and retention bonuses to summer workers, along with free access to all of the county’s recreation centers throughout the season.

Pedersen says FCPA has also increased its salaries and made a concerted recruiting push through social media, virtual hiring fairs, and drive-up interviews.

Fairfax County isn’t alone in struggling to staff pools and other recreational facilities this summer. Reston Association closed two pools for multiple days last month, and looking nationally, more than half of the pools in Pennsylvania’s state parks are closed or have shortened hours.

The American Lifeguard Association estimated in June that insufficient staff would affect a third of pools in the country, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said a slowdown in temporary international workers has contributed to the labor shortage.

In Fairfax County, the park authority continues to adapt to the changing circumstances, seeking to provide the facilities and programming that residents expect without compromising safety or the quality of its services.

“It is a balancing act between the absolute need for safety to be paramount, and our desire to meet the recreational needs and desires of the public,” Pedersen said.

Screenshot via Fairfax County Park Authority/YouTube

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