DEM offers $1,000 bonuses to recruit summer lifeguards

Incentives aim to head off hiring woes; hourly rate still pales in comparison to Mass.

By: - April 26, 2023 4:04 pm

A lifeguard on duty at Second Beach, the town surf beach in Middletown in 2018. (Photo by Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

In an attempt to navigate the rough waters of seasonal hiring, Rhode Island is offering up to $1,000 in signing and retention bonuses for summer lifeguards at state beaches.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management on Tuesday announced one-time bonuses as well as hourly wage increases for summer, seasonal lifeguards. The financial incentives aim to help turn the tides on local and national labor market woes, which are also true among the teenage workforce, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

The $500 apiece signing and retention bonuses also mirror what neighboring Massachusetts is offering to seasonal pool and waterfront safety workers this summer, according to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation website.

Massachusetts already bests Rhode Island when it comes to hourly wages for lifeguards; the Commonwealth offers $22 to $27 hourly for lifeguards and managers, depending on experience. In Rhode Island, lifeguards will make $15.50 to $18.75 an hour this year, with the range again dependent on experience. Though significantly lower than Massachusetts, the Ocean State’s 2023 rates mark a 10-14% boost over last year’s wages, according to DEM.

Seasonal workers across various jobs, from lifeguarding to park rangers and groundskeepers, are critical to maintaining the state agency’s vast expanse of beaches and parks, which contribute $300 million in state revenue a year, according to a 2017 study from the University of Rhode Island. 

“We need a great team — and finding and hiring qualified, enthusiastic workers is essential to delivering on this promise,” DEM Director Terry Gray said in a statement.

Last year, DEM was only able to fill about half of the 150 lifeguard jobs needed to oversee state swimming areas, forcing the state to restrict swimming at beaches a “handful of times” due to lack of available staffing, according to a statement.

Though private and public sector employees have bemoaned recent hiring challenges, municipal lifeguard programs in some cities and towns appear still buoyant. 

In Narragansett: ‘Tons of applications’

Among them, Narragansett, where the town has already filled the 52 lifeguard jobs needed to work at Narragansett Town Beach this summer, according to Michelle Kershaw, the town’s parks and recreations director.

“We always get tons of applications,” said Kershaw, adding that recruitment starts after Christmas each year. “We do not have a problem hiring lifeguards.”

The town’s hourly rates are on-par with state pay, although there are no signing or retention bonuses in Narragansett. 

South Kingstown is also not offering extra incentives to attract lifeguards for the South Kingstown Town Beach, though like DEM, it has upped the hourly rates, according to Lenka Capek, town recreational superintendent.

The $15.62 to $18.23 hourly rate offered for South Kingstown lifeguards marks a 5-10% pay bump over last year’s wages, according to Capek. Though South Kingstown was just beginning to recruit seasonal summer workers, including lifeguards, Capek wasn’t worried about competing with DEM.

“We have a relatively small beach so we don’t need to hire as many,” she said. She added that many of the town lifeguards return for multiple years. 

Keeping those teenagers and 20-somethings through the end of the season can be difficult though. South Kingstown has ended lifeguard supervision of the beach before Labor Day weekend for the past two years due to staffing shortages as workers return to college, Capek said.

DEM’s retention bonuses aim to head off that early exodus among state lifeguards, offering a one-time $500 payment to lifeguards who stay through Sept. 4. The $500 sign-on bonus is available for employees who are hired by June 24.

A list of DEM’s seasonal employee job openings and applications are available online.


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.