HONOLULU – Software engineer Raymond Berger starts his workday 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 bit difficult 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 is suffering dramatically from fewer tourists, a group of state officials and community leaders want more people like Berger to offer an alternative to reliance on short-term visitors.
At the same time as winter is approaching in other parts of the USA, “Movers & Shakas” – an allusion to the Hawaiian term for the “hang-loose” hand gesture – is starting on Sunday as a campaign to encourage former residents and people from elsewhere to move to branch offices with a view. They advertise Hawaii’s paradisiacal and safety attributes: one of the lowest per capita rates of COVID-19 infection in the country.
The first 50 applicants admitted starting Sunday will receive a free round-trip air ticket to Honolulu. Applicants are pledged to respect Hawaii’s culture and natural resources, and participants are required to dedicate several hours per week to a local nonprofit organization.
It didn’t take much to convince Abbey Tizzano to leave her Austin, Texas apartment to 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 the then state rules for incoming travelers. While working in account management for a software company, she stays in the Central time zone, so she can finish the work day early enough to take long hikes along the mountain ridges or a five-minute walk to the beach.
“It’s like I’ve lived two lives right now. There’s the company page for … the early hours of the morning, ”said Tizzano. “And then there is the Hawaiian lifestyle when I finish work around noon or 1 p.m.”
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 you grateful for people who come to stimulate the economy, or are you worried that they will keep raising house prices and the like?”
Housing is a real problem in a state where there is a crisis of affordable housing, said Nicole Woo, policy analyst with the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.
She fears that if her presence persists beyond the pandemic and emerges in greater numbers, it could push property values even higher.
Jonathon Medeiros, who lived in Kauai all his life, felt uncomfortable watching an airline lure teleworkers to Hawaii.
The teleworking campaign just feels like a different kind of tourism to him. “We are simply portrayed as this paradise, a place where you can come and play,” he said. “And there is such a privilege in this attitude.”
One focus of the campaign sounds tempting to Medeiros, a public high school teacher: a way for those who grew up in Hawaii to come home without the often necessary pay cuts to work here.
“I see so many of my students 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 went to the US mainland and Asia for educational and career opportunities.
As CEO of kWh Analytics, he never expected to leave the California Bay Area and continue running the company.
The pandemic has closed childcare facilities 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.
“With the opportunity now to take on mainland salaries and our mainland jobs and do them well from Hawaii, I think Hawaii has a golden opportunity to diversify the economy and… capitalize on the fact that our core strength is 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 began to think about expanding it to include others.
Looking at the housing impact, Higa said the group included a vacation rental company that sits on a large inventory of empty properties that are usually rented by tourists.
Wissam Ali-Ahmad, a software solutions architect based in San Jose, California, rents a Kauai condominium 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 neighborhoods in Hawaii are overflowing with illegal short-term vacation rentals, and long-term renters can legally move into these properties, said Ryan Ozawa, communications director for local technology company Hawaii Information Service.
“What I like about the idea of having a cabal of Twitter workers pulling everyone 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 the things we want, local sales tax, groceries, utility bills, and so on, you know, those San Francisco paychecks are paid out in Hawaii.”
The Honolulu suburb of Kailua is struggling to cope with the influx of short-term vacation rentals. That’s where Julia Miller, who works for a company that provides small business payroll services, her Google husband and two toddlers ended up leaving the bleak weather and fires of Northern California last month.
“We are really grateful that we could come here and be welcome,” she said. “We want to do our part to ensure that Hawaii remains safe.”
While the Millers plan to stay four to six months, others view Hawaii as a longer-term remote workplace.
Software engineer Gil Tene and his wife, an ICU doctor, bought a house in September in Hanalei, Kauai’s most sought-after beachfront destination with multi-million dollar homes.
They plan to split their time between Hanalei and Palo Alto, California, so they looked for a property with a view of remote working. They agreed on a house with five bedrooms – enough space for Tene to work, his wife to see patients virtually and their daughter to study.
“What you’re looking for in a place you want to work from is very different than when you want to go on vacation,” he said.