Commutes add to cost of living on Big Island
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
By Kevin Dayton
To get to work on time at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai in North Kona from her home in Discovery Harbour in Ka'u, Colleen Gundaker must be on the road by 4:30 a.m. each day.
She joins the caravan of traffic headed north each morning for the 90-minute to two-hour drive to the employment hubs of North Kona and South Kohala.
Outside of Kailua Village, she passes clusters of construction workers who converge on the gas stations there for coffee to jolt them awake before reporting to South Kohala building sites. Many have driven two hours around the other side of the island from their homes in Hilo or Puna.
Gundaker said she likes her job, likes the benefits and likes the idea that she is paying down some bills that accumulated in recent years, but she wishes there were an easier way.
"If gas and rent wasn't so high, people might be able to get ahead. A lot of people are just working just to have a roof over their head," she said.
There is plenty of frustration to go around.
The West Hawai'i unemployment rate is well below the overall 3 percent unemployment rate for the island, and rents and housing prices are stuck at sky-high levels. There are plenty of jobs in Kona, but workers can't afford to live there, so many must drive hours to get to work each day.
For employers, the housing squeeze means they must continuously recruit. People quit because they can't stand the long commutes, or they find jobs closer to home.
Andy Levin, who has been working on a state-county task force to try to sort through some of these issues, said he hears reports of employers who poach employees at other workplaces, and stories about employees who blow off work because they know they can instantly find another job.
There are hundreds of vacant positions at the South Kohala hotels, and "they cannot find workers," said Levin, who is executive director to Big Island Mayor Harry Kim.
"I think everybody is looking, and everybody is using different techniques to attract employees," said Sharon Sakai, administrative director of the Kohala Coast Resort Association. "They are having job fairs, they are offering different kinds of incentives."
The association represents eight hotels and four resorts that have a combined total of about 6,000 jobs, she said.
ACUTE LABOR SHORTAGE
Lori Sasaki, manager of the Kona office of the state labor department's workforce development program, said the Kona labor shortage is more severe now than in previous boom cycles. Today there are more Kona employers than ever before chasing a limited supply of workers, leading to a long period of very low unemployment.
"Every industry is being affected at every level," she said. "We have coffee farmers who are looking for workers, and we have the higher-skilled occupations, and everything in between."
To try to ease the employment squeeze, state and county officials are trying some unconventional approaches.
Job fairs are tentatively planned for Las Vegas and Los Angeles this fall to try to coax people raised in Hawai'i to move back home to fill some of the jobs now available on the Big Island.
State lawmakers also put up $200,000 for a building to house a new job training program for Big Island prison and jail inmates who are almost ready for release. The program is to be based at the Hale Nani furlough facility in Hilo in an effort to quickly draw former inmates back into the job market.
A number of construction and other companies have already offered to hire qualified ex-inmates, which Levin called a "beautiful win-win situation."
With very little affordable housing available in the Kailua area, transportation remains a huge burden for employees, and sometimes causes problems for employers as well.
The county already provides daily free bus trips starting at 3:30 a.m. for employees from East Hawai'i and Pahala who commute two hours to jobs in the Kona or South Kohala areas, and there are plans to expand that service later this year, said Tom Brown, county transit administrator.
Scott Rohfeld, executive steward at Four Seasons, said he has workers commuting by car from Laupahoehoe in East Hawai'i and Miloli'i in Ka'u. With only one road around the island, flooding or an accident 50 miles away easily can gum up operations at Four Seasons.
"If a tree goes down and blocks the Hamakua Coast, we could lose half a shift in the morning," he said.
'HOW PEOPLE DO IT'
For those who do live in the Kona area, "we have a lot of multiple family situations with two or three or four families living in one home," Rohfeld said. Some cross-island commuters sleep at the homes of family members who live near Kailua to avoid driving home during the week.
Others, like 28-year-old Sheldon Riveira, sleep in their cars between shifts.
Riveira bought a home in Ocean View eight years ago, and now drives north to work a full-time kitchen job at Four Seasons as well as two part-time banquet service jobs at other resorts.
With gas as expensive as it is for the 60-mile drive home, Riveira said he sleeps at home only about four times a week. He said he twice caught himself nodding off at the wheel of his car, and had to pull over to nap.
"This is how people do it today," Riveira said. He would like to move closer to work, but "it's so expensive up here. Around the coast, the closer to your job, the more expensive it gets." It would cost $400,000 or more for Riveira to buy a home closer to work, and that is out of reach.
The county has plans for about 1,000 affordable housing units over the next seven years in Waikoloa to help provide housing for West-side workers, but employees have found other solutions in the meantime.
Once or twice a week when Gundaker is too tired to make the drive home to Ka'u, she sleeps at a tiny 8-by-10 foot room she rents in Kailua. The room, which was added on to the back of a three-bedroom rental unit, has a bed, a toilet and a camp stove.
Gundaker pays $600 a month, while other hotel workers rent the three-bedroom home for $2,000, and yet another group of tenants rents the enclosed garage on the same property for $1,000 a month.
"It's just highway robbery," Gundaker said. "I wish people in Kona would have a heart and not rent their place so damn high." She sums up the situation this way: "It's Kailua, Kona, where the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer."
In another strategy to help commuters, Kim's administration is planning a bill to allow homeowners with extra space to rent out a room without losing their favorable homeowner property tax rates and exemptions. The hope is that will encourage homeowners to make more rooms available for people like Gundaker.
With commutes as long as they are, employers who are even slightly closer to the labor pool may have an advantage.
John De Fries, chief executive officer of the luxury Hokuli'a development, will soon have to navigate the tight Kona labor market to restart the massive 1,550-acre project. Hokuli'a was halted by a lawsuit in 2003, but was cleared to resume construction earlier this year after an out-of-court settlement.
By the end of this year De Fries and his subcontractors must find about 400 workers to continue the project, but De Fries said he thinks his location will give him an edge over most other West Hawai'i employers.
Since the construction site is well south of Kailua, workers from central and South Kona and Ka'u can avoid an hour or more of commuting each day by taking jobs with Hokuli'a. The location of the job site "is going to play a big role in decisions that employees make," De Fries said.
Even so, De Fries said he expects Hokuli'a will have to recruit workers from other islands to get the project moving again.
"Clearly every major employer, their wage-benefits programs are going to have to be very, very competitive," he said. "That speaks for a favorable environment for people seeking new employment."
Reach Kevin Dayton at email@example.com.