‘Movers & Shakas’: Hawaii hopes to be seen as remote workplace with a view
HONOLULU – software developer Raymond Berger starts his working day at 5 a.m. before the sun rises over Hawaii.
Getting up early is necessary because the company he works for is in New York City, five hours from Maui, where he rents a house with a garden near the beach.
“It’s a little tricky with the time zone difference,” he said. “But in general I have a much better quality of life.”
The pandemic gives many workers the freedom to do their jobs from anywhere. Now that Hawaii’s economy has been hit by dramatically fewer tourists, a group of state officials and community leaders want more people like Berger to offer an alternative to dependence on short-term visitors.
Coinciding with the upcoming winter in other parts of the USA, “Movers & Shakas” started a campaign on Sunday to encourage former residents and other citizens to set up field offices with a view. They extol Hawaii’s paradisiacal and safety features: Among the lowest per capita rates of COVID-19 infection in the country.
The first 50 applicants admitted as of Sunday received a free round-trip air ticket to Honolulu. Applicants are committed to respecting Hawaii’s culture and natural resources, and participants are required to dedicate several hours per week to helping a local nonprofit.
It didn’t take much for Abbey Tizzano to leave her Austin, Texas apartment and join four Silicon Valley friends in a rented house in Kahala, Honolulu’s version of Beverly Hills.
She had never been to Hawaii before. She booked a one-way ticket, arrived in September and was quarantined for 14 days, following state rules for arriving travelers at the time. While working in account management for a software company, she keeps the central time zone hours so she can finish the work day early enough to go on long hikes along the mountain ridges or a five-minute walk to the beach.
“It’s like I’m living two lives right now. There’s the company page for … the early hours of the morning, ”said Tizzano. “And then there’s just like the Hawaiian lifestyle after I’m home from work around noon or 1pm.”
The neighbors tell the remote workers that they are a welcome change from the stag and hen parties the luxury home usually hosts, she said.
Tizzano wonders what other locals think of them: “Are they grateful for people who want to help boost the economy or are they afraid that they will keep raising house prices and things like that?”
Housing is a real problem in a state that has an affordable housing crisis, said Nicole Woo, policy analyst for the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.
She fears that if her presence stays beyond the pandemic and if they emerge in greater numbers, they could increase their property values even further.
Lifelong Kauai resident Jonathon Medeiros felt uncomfortable seeing an airline luring distant workers to Hawaii.
The remote worker campaign just feels like a different kind of tourism to him. “We’re just being portrayed as this paradise, a place where you can play,” he said. “And with that attitude comes such a privilege.”
One focus of the campaign sounds attractive to Medeiros, a public high school teacher: an opportunity for those who grew up in Hawaii to come home without the wage cuts often required to work here.
“I see so many of my students, they graduate, and a lot of them go and never come back,” he said, “because they don’t see Kauai as a place to have a life.”
Richard Matsui grew up in Honolulu. After high school, he traveled to mainland America and Asia for educational and career opportunities.
As CEO of kWh Analytics, he never expected to leave the California Bay Area and still run the company.
The pandemic has stopped childcare in San Francisco for his baby born in January. He and his wife planned to come to Honolulu for a month so that his mother could help with the baby. One month became two and then six.
“If there is an opportunity now to do our mainland salaries and mainland jobs well from Hawaii, I believe that Hawaii will have a golden opportunity to diversify the economy and… capitalize on the fact that our main strength is ours that Hawaii is a wonderful place to live and raise children, ”he said.
The idea behind the campaign started with more people like Matsui coming home, said Jason Higa, CEO of FCH Enterprises, the parent company of Hawaii’s popular Zippy’s restaurants.
Then the group started thinking about extending it to others.
Considering the housing impact, Higa said the group included a vacation rental company that sits on a large inventory of vacant properties that are typically rented by tourists.
Wissam Ali-Ahmad, a software solutions architect based in San Jose, California, rents a Kauai apartment that is typically marketed to vacationers.
He has taken on side projects as a consultant for local food trucks and restaurants to help small businesses improve their contactless services.
“I feel like a guest here and I have to contribute as much as possible,” he said.
Many Hawaiian neighborhoods are overcrowded with illegal short-term rentals, and long-term renters can legally occupy these properties, said Ryan Ozawa, communications director for local technology company Hawaii Information Service.
“What I like about the idea of a cabal of Twitter workers moving to Kailua, for example, is that they bring their jobs with them so you don’t talk about evictions in that regard,” he said. “But for all of the things we want, local sales tax, groceries, utility bills, and so on, those paychecks from San Francisco are given out in Hawaii.”
The Honolulu suburb of Kailua is struggling to cope with the influx of short-term vacation rentals. This is where Julia Miller, who works for a company that provides small business payroll services, her husband, a Google employee, and their two toddlers landed last month as they walked out of the dreary weather and fires of Northern California.
“We are really grateful that we could come here and be welcome,” she said. “We want to make our contribution to the security of Hawaii.”
While the Millers plan to stay four to six months, others view Hawaii as a longer-term, secluded place to work.
Software engineer Gil Tene and his wife, an intensive care doctor, bought a house in September in Hanalei, Kauai’s most sought-after beach town with multi-million dollar homes.
They plan to split their time between Hanalei and Palo Alto, California, and are looking for a property that will operate remotely. They opted for a five-bedroom house – enough rooms for Tene to work, his wife to see patients virtually, and their daughter to study in.
“What you look for in a place you want to work is very different than when you want to go on vacation,” he said.