‘Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’: Hawaii seeks to be seen as a remote workplace with a view

HONOLULU — Software engineer Raymond Berger begins his work day at 5 a.m., before the sun comes up over Hawaii.

Rising early is necessary because the company he works for is in New York City, five hours ahead of Maui, where he is renting a home with a backyard that’s near the beach.

“It’s a little hard with the time zone difference,” he said. “But generally I have a much better quality of life.”

The coronavirus pandemic is giving many workers the freedom to do their jobs from anywhere. Now that Hawaii’s economy is reeling from dramatically fewer tourists, a group of state officials and community leaders wants more people like Berger to help provide an alternative to relying on short-term visitors.

Coinciding with the approach of winter in other parts of the U.S., “Movers & Shakas” — a reference to the Hawaii term for the “hang loose” hand gesture — launches Sunday as a campaign to attract former residents and those from elsewhere to set up remote offices with a view. They’re touting Hawaii’s paradisiacal and safety attributes: among the lowest rates per capita of COVID-19 infections in the country.

The first 50 applicants approved starting Sunday receive a free, round-trip ticket to Honolulu. Applicants pledge to respect Hawaii’s culture and natural resources and participants must commit several hours a week to helping a local nonprofit.

Hawaii travel: State tightens travel rules, requires negative COVID-19 tests prior to arrival

It didn’t take much to convince Abbey Tizzano to leave behind 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 quarantined for 14 days, complying with the state’s rules at the time for arriving travelers. She’s keeping Central time zone hours while working in account management for a software company, allowing her to end the work day early enough to enjoy long hikes along mountain ridges or walk five minutes to the beach.

“It’s like I live two lives right now. There’s the corporate side for … the early mornings,” Tizzano said. “And then there’s just like the Hawaii lifestyle after I get off work around noon or 1 p.m.”

Neighbors tell the remote workers they’re a welcome change from the bachelor and bachelorette parties the luxury home normally hosts, she said.

Tizzano wonders what other locals think of them: “Are they appreciative of people coming that want to help stimulate the economy or are they concerned that they’re going to raise housing prices more and stuff like that?”

Housing is a real concern in a state where there’s an affordable housing crisis, said Nicole Woo, a policy analyst for Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.

She worries that if their presence remains beyond the pandemic and if they come in larger numbers, they could start pushing property values even higher.

Lifelong Kauai resident Jonathon Medeiros felt uncomfortable when he saw an airline ad luring remote workers to Hawaii.

The remote worker campaign just feels to him like another kind of tourism. “We just get portrayed as this paradise, a place for you to come and play,” he said. “And there’s such privilege involved in that attitude.”

One focus of the campaign sounds appealing to Medeiros, a public high school teacher: An opportunity for those who grew up in Hawaii to come home without having to take the pay cuts that are often required to work here.

“I see so many of my students, they graduate and many of them leave and never come back,” he said, “because they don’t see Kauai as a place where they can make a life.”

Richard Matsui grew up in Honolulu. After high school, he left for the U.S. mainland and Asia for educational and career opportunities.

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