Lowering age minimum to 15 could help ease Wisconsin's lifeguard shortage

Editor's Note: On March 28, 2018, Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a provision reducing the minimum age for lifeguards in Wisconsin from 16 to 15.

By JANET WEYANDT | July 20, 2017

In London, American swimmer Katie Ledecky won an Olympic gold medal at the age of 15.

In Wisconsin, she wouldn’t have been able to get a job as a lifeguard.

Wisconsin law requires lifeguards to be at least 16, which may be compounding a shortage that forced a Wisconsin Dells resort to delay the opening of part of its outdoor waterpark this year.

“Any extra pool of employees we can draw from is, to me, a net positive,” says Brandon Schindler, aquatics director at the Wilderness Resort in the Dells. Wilderness couldn’t open a section of its New Frontier waterpark on schedule because it didn’t have enough lifeguards, he says.

Wisconsin is unusual. The American Red Cross certifies lifeguards at age 15, surrounding states allow lifeguards to be 15 and even federal law allows 15-year-old lifeguards at national parks and other facilities.

“The Red Cross allows lifeguards to be certified at 15 years old; it’s just the State of Wisconsin doesn’t allow them to work at 15. They all have to pass the same certification requirements regardless of their age,” Schindler says.

At Breaker Bay waterpark at the Blue Harbor Resort and Conference Center in Sheboygan, waterpark operations director Eugene Vanderwalt says, “If there’s no staff, you cannot open attractions.” Because safety comes first, an attraction is shut down if there aren’t enough lifeguards, he says.

The issue first came to the attention of state Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) when he learned that his children’s swimming lessons were canceled due to a lack of instructors.

The email announcing the cancellation explained that Wisconsin law has an age minimum of 16 for certain aquatic jobs, including swim instructor and lifeguard. That struck Kooyenga as odd, so he asked his staff to look into it.

In their cursory review, they found that the age 16 minimum for swim instructors was in line with other locales but that Wisconsin was an outlier in the age minimum for lifeguards.

So Kooyenga sponsored Assembly Bill 326 to lower the state’s minimum age for lifeguards to 15 as long as the minor successfully completes a bona fide life-

saving course. Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) has sponsored a Senate version, SB 251.

“We’re mostly talking about high school kids,” Kooyenga says. “Typically, if they don’t (start) lifeguarding by the time they’re 16, they don’t do it. It’s an economic development issue, but it’s also an issue of promoting a culture of swim safety.”

He adds, “It doesn’t replace 16-year-old lifeguards with 15-year-olds. It just creates a larger supply.”

Olsen says he’d like to see Wisconsin match the federal law governing lifeguards.

“What’s interesting is we have kids at 15 take the class, but they can’t work for another year,” he says. “If the life-saving classes feel that 15-year-old kids are able to do the job and train them, why would we not let them use their skills, especially when we’re having trouble filling positions — in all kinds of youth employment but especially city pools?”

“There is a shortage,” Olsen says. Waterparks and resorts “get a lot of kids from other countries to come and work here. If the federal government goes goofy on immigration, on J-1 visas, then they’re in a world of hurt.”

J-1 is a non-immigrant visa category that allows people to enter the United States for work- and study-based exchange programs. Many of the young people working at Wisconsin Dells resorts are here on J-1 visas.

The law change would be in the best interest of Wisconsin’s aquatic businesses, many of which — particularly in the Dells — operate year-round, Olsen says.

“They’re just as busy in the winter as they are in the summer, the indoor ones,” he says. “We’re not doing it just for the Dells, a lot of communities have swimming pools. And they’ve changed them now so they’re not just swimming pools; they’re aquatic centers and need a lot more lifeguards. The federal law says it, and the American Red Cross says it. They’re not going to train kids they don’t feel are ready to do the job.”

Schindler, who testified in June at an Assembly committee hearing in favor of AB 326, says allowing 15-year-olds to work as lifeguards would be especially beneficial in the fall, after the J-1 visa students have returned home.

“We’re left with only what we can find locally to staff our businesses and our waterparks. … There are days when the slides don’t open and pools are kept closed because we don’t have the staff to operate them safely.”

Tom Mooney, chapter executive and chief operating officer of the American Red Cross Southeast Wisconsin Chapter, based in Madison, also testified at the hearing in favor of the law change.

“Our training allows 15-year-olds to be lifeguards, so (the bill) complements what we’re doing in other states,” he says.

Kooyenga and Olsen say they haven’t heard much opposition to the idea so far, and Kooyenga hopes it’ll be ready for an Assembly vote in October.

“We’re short hundreds of lifeguards throughout the state. I think it’s a no-brainer, and I think it’s going to pass,” he says.

Janet Weyandt of Sheboygan is a freelance writer.