Editor’s note: Hawaii is facing an unprecedented economic crisis, with unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression. Civil Beat’s new series, “Making It. Or Not,” tells the stories of people in Hawaii who are struggling — and finding creative ways to make ends meet — in the pandemic economy. Email makingit@civilbeat.org to share your story.

The coronavirus-ravaged economy has devastated Marni Kaduce’s income, pushing her to make a career change.

Her longtime, lucrative job as a fire dancer at a tourist luau ended six months ago when the virus all but halted travel to the islands. She has a side job working out of her Kauai home as a massage therapist, but the virus has taken a toll on that business too.

Since March, the 48-year-old Kauai resident has relied almost exclusively on $263 in weekly payments from the state Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or PUA, and, until it ended in July, the $600-per-week federal “plus-up” payments.

Government assistance has helped Kaduce keep the lights on. But it’s not enough to cover all her basic living expenses, she said.

A luau fire dancer and massage therapist, Marni Kaduce said the collapse of tourism has pushed her to seek a career change. Courtesy: Marni Kaduce

Kaduce’s home mortgage is now in forbearance, a program that temporarily halts her monthly payments. She will eventually have to make up the missed payments, but the reprieve gives her time to salvage her finances.

As Kaduce sees it, the only way she can do that is to pursue a new career that’s not tourism-dependent. There’s no telling when visitors will be allowed to return to Hawaii without having to endure the state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine.

“I’m alone,” Kaduce said. “I support myself. So I don’t have the option of dropping the ball. If I drop the ball, then I lose everything I worked really hard for — my house, my car, my life on this island. So I have to change to survive and eventually, I hope, to thrive.”

Kaduce, who doesn’t have a college degree, recently surveyed her options. She scoured online job boards to see what fields are hiring and then researched qualification requirements and local salary data. The search eventually led her to select a career as a certified nurse’s aide.

“I have to change to survive.” — Marni Kaduce

The pros: It’s a job in health care, a field that she reasons is more stable than the tourism-driven arts and performance industry.

The cons: In a 40-hour work week, Kaduce would earn less as a nurse’s aide than she used to make fire dancing for six hours per week.

“It doesn’t offer me the opportunity to build wealth like I was doing,” Kaduce said. “It does offer me the opportunity to be kind to humanity and to help. So that’s what I’m going to do.”

In a time of chaos, Kaduce said selecting a new vocation feels like something she can actually control. She spent $1,800 to enroll in an upcoming four-week certification course that she said will qualify her to assist nurses in administering basic patient care, such as feeding, bathing or measuring vital signs.

“I kind of hope that I find a job in one of the elderly care facilities here and I can brush their hair and hold their hand and give them a hug,” Kaduce said. “That’ll make me happy and it’ll brighten their day. I can do that — and it will get me out of feeling like I’m stuck.”

Roommates Help Family Make Ends Meet

Kekoa Lansford used to earn about $1,600 per week working in marketing and sales for Maui Tickets For Less, an activities concierge on Front Street in his hometown of Lahaina.

For Kekoa Lansford, unemployment payments have been sporadic. To make ends meet, he has spent through his savings, racked up charges on his credit cards, deferred mortgage and car loan payments and taken on four new roommates. Courtesy: Kekoa Lansford/2020

When the pandemic hit, the company shut down indefinitely. Lansford said he quickly applied for unemployment, but it took 10 weeks for his first weekly PUA payment of $232 to kick in.

“By that time,” he said, “I had just barely used up my entire life savings on basic living expenses.”

While he was waiting for government assistance, Lansford said he spent about $15,000 in savings on food, mortgage payments, utility bills, car loan payments and cell phone and credit card bills to support himself and his son.

“That’s not what that money was intended for,” Lansford said. “I didn’t have a choice.”

Until they ran out in July, Lansford was also getting $600-per-week federal “plus-up” payments. But even with that boost it was never enough to make ends meet, he said.

“Our entire industry is gone.” — Kekoa Lansford

Lansford said he’s living in survival mode. And he said he’s angry.

“It’s been pretty devastating,” Lansford said. “Our entire industry is gone. I’m just suffering. They don’t want us to work so I’m just sitting on my ass here waiting for $232 a week.”

To get by, Lansford is deferring payments on his mortgage and car loan. He’s racking up his credit cards. And he’s started collecting rent from four new roommates who moved into the three-bedroom Lahaina home that he already shares with his 3-year-old son and grandmother.

Last month, Lansford endured another sudden and unexpected financial blow. He said his unemployment payments were temporarily halted until the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations could verify his identity with additional documentation it requested to rule out identity fraud.

It took weeks for the agency to restore his payments, Lansford said.

“What I do now when I get that check is I buy chicken and I buy rice and I divvy it out for a few days and I make sure I have gas in my car,” he said. “With the next check I pay whatever bills I can.”

There has been at least one silver lining during this season of turmoil, however. Now that the streets of Lahaina are empty of tourists, Lansford said local residents are forging closer bonds and new alliances to help their struggling neighbors fend off hunger and financial hardship.

Furloughed workers are spending their free time feeding homeless people, cleaning up local beaches and beautifying the historic whaling village, he said.

“As a community, the people who live in Lahaina have really bonded together,” Lansford said. “The community is more connected than ever.”

One Farm, Two Business Models

Before the coronavirus changed everyday life in Hawaii, Haley Miyaoka’s quarter-acre vegetable farm sold produce at farmers markets and to restaurants, including Roy Yamaguchi’s Goen in Kailua.

This profitable business model collapsed suddenly in March, however, when COVID-19 forced farmers markets and many restaurants to temporarily shut down.

So Miyaoka, a 24-year-old fledgling farmer who launched Ahiki Acres in her hometown of Waimanalo a year ago, quickly pivoted to sell her lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers directly to consumers.

Ahiki Acres farmers Haley Miyaoka and Matthew McKinnon on their farm located in Waimanalo.
Farmers Haley Miyaoka and Matthew McKinnon launched Ahiki Acres in Waimanalo six months before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Hawaii. The economic damage has forced them to quickly rewrite their business model multiple times. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Remaking her business plan, Miyaoka rushed to launch a community-supported agriculture program, offering customers a weekly subscription box filled with seasonal vegetables. The enterprise required her to add beets, fennel, radishes and edible flowers into the farm’s crop mix to boost her farm’s produce variety. She also started an online marketplace where people who did not want to commit to a CSA subscription could buy carrots and peppers a la carte.

Enthusiasm for the CSA program and virtual vegetable shop was initially high, at least in part because the pandemic had highlighted Hawaii’s potentially catastrophic dependency on the cargo ships and planes that deliver about 90% of the state’s food supplies.

“A lot of people were wanting to support local farms,” said Miyaoka, who owns and operates Ahiki Acres with her business partner Matthew McKinnon. “I was pumped.”

By May, interest in the farm’s CSA program and online store had waned as restaurants began to reopen or expand their hours of service. So Miyaoka followed the market, pivoting back to a model focused on supplying produce to restaurants.

“Reacting to all the re-openings and the closures definitely feels like a roller coaster.” — Haley Miyaoka

Now, with Oahu restaurants ordered to close their dining rooms yet again, Miyaoka said it seems inevitable that she’ll have to rush to revamp the farm’s operations for the third time since the onset of the pandemic.

Every time the business model changes, Miyaoka and her business partner have to alter what they’re growing because each model necessitates a different crop mix.

“Reacting to all the reopenings and the closures definitely feels like a roller coaster,” Miyaoka said. “It’s like we settled into one plan for things, things changed, and we had to mix it up again. We’ve had to constantly adapt.”

Ahiki Acres farmer Haley Miyaoka stands fronting their plot of land in Waimanalo.
Farmer Haley Miyaoka said she’s been able to change her business model to fit the COVID-19 economy more easily than other established farmers because her greenhorn business is more adaptable. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

By the time Ahiki Acres celebrates its first year of business next month, there’s no telling what the farm’s business model will be.

Despite a chaotic foray into a career in farming, Miyaoka said she’s enthusiastic about her farm’s future potential to help boost Oahu’s tenuous grip on food security. And the support she receives as a beginner farmer affiliated with GoFarm Hawaii has helped her navigate the challenges COVID-19 has inflicted on agriculture businesses, she said.

A bright spot in the pandemic is a rising interest in the local food movement. Shoppers are pondering the origins of their grocery staples. And they’re asking how many sets of hands have touched their carrots.

“There’s a lot of reward and personal happiness in being able to feed the community,” Miyaoka said.

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