Struggling to fill seasonal roles, Park District offers bonus to lifeguards, other summer workers

Following an investigation into allegations of rampant sexual abuse and harassment among its lifeguards, and a national lifeguard shortage, the Chicago Park District is trying to attract summer workers with a monetary bonus.

SHARE Struggling to fill seasonal roles, Park District offers bonus to lifeguards, other summer workers
A life guard tower at Oak Street Beach sits empty last summer.

A life guard tower at Oak Street Beach sits empty last summer.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Chicago Park District is offering financial incentives to people applying for summer jobs, two years after the start of an investigation that exposed rampant sexual abuse and harassment among its lifeguards. 

The district will pay $500 bonuses to seasonal lifeguards and $200 to other seasonal staff who take jobs this summer, according to a Park District press release. The department said the recruiting effort comes as it prepares for its “busiest season” following the pandemic and a national shortage of lifeguards. 

The Associated Press reported last year the shortage is a result of certification classes being put on hold during the pandemic.

A Park District spokesperson wouldn’t comment when asked if a report from the district’s inspector general, detailing sexual misconduct and bullying at some Chicago beaches and pools, has hindered recruiting this year.

In 2021, the Park District inspector general’s internal investigation found about a half-dozen female lifeguards were sexually harassed and assaulted by male co-workers, including an attempted rape. Eventually, Park District Supt. Michael Kelly was forced to resign, and three top department executives also were fired.

The Park District has received 686 applicants for seasonal lifeguards as of Thursday morning, according to a Park District spokesperson. But the spokesperson refused to provide the number of lifeguard vacancies without a formal request for those details under the Freedom of Information Act. That request has been filed.

In all, the Park District is looking to fill 2,100 positions this summer, including lifeguards, junior laborers, attendants and recreation leaders.

In the release, the district said it’s received a “favorable number of qualified applicants for seasonal lifeguards,” but only a small number with job offers have completed the hiring process. District officials hope the $500 bonus will push those people to come on board as well as attract new candidates.

“As we prepare for our busiest season in the parks coming out of the pandemic, we want to do all we can to attract and retain the most qualified and enthusiastic seasonal workforce possible,” Park District CEO Rosa Escareño was quoted as saying in the news release detailing the new incentives.

“The retention bonus is the District’s measure to ensure we are paying competitive wages that are in line with other public sector employers in this competitive marketplace and compensating our summer workers for the important work they do to serve our communities.”

The Chicago Sun-Times has learned that in February 2020, Kelly assured a female lifeguard he would launch an investigation into her claims of physical abuse, sexual harassment and drug and alcohol abuse among lifeguards at Oak Street Beach but didn’t act until he received another, more graphic, complaint six weeks later.

Problems of harassment and abuse among lifeguards at city beaches and pools were first reported by WBEZ-FM.

Early this year, that watchdog released its annual report, further detailing other allegations of abuse within the department. In one case, a 32-year-old man, Mauricio Ramirez, was accused of a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old under his supervision in 2021. Shortly after those allegations were reported, two additional female lifeguards reported that they also had been sexually assaulted by the same supervisor, the report said. He ​​was charged in December with having sex with two underage lifeguards under his supervision.

The inspector general also found that in 2016, a 16-year-old female lifeguard was sexually assaulted by an 18-year-old male lifeguard after he encouraged her to drink alcohol. He was suspended, then resigned, and has been placed on the “do not rehire” list.

And in 2018, a veteran lifeguard, according to the report, was found to have sexually harassed and assaulted an underage female lifeguard and made threats after the attack. He resigned and also was placed on the “do not rehire” list.

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