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Business/Economy

With pandemic shift to remote jobs, some workers seek Alaska’s unique appeal

Heather Aruffo does medical writing from her home office in South Anchorage. Her dog Oaken, a retired sled dog, keeps her company. Photographed on Thursday, June 3, 2021. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

As the pandemic shook up work culture around the world, some Americans left their big-city jobs and headed north.

While Alaska hasn’t seen the same boom as some places in the Lower 48, where remote workers flooded vacation destinations in droves, a smattering of people — seeking community connection, financial ease and accessible recreation — have found the state an ideal place to settle for the moment.

Clare Corthell, 32, is a product manager for the ride-sharing company Lyft. She is originally from the Kenai Peninsula community of Nikiski but has lived in the San Francisco Bay area for a little over a decade.

And for the past seven years, she’s wanted to get back to Alaska.

Corthell had planned on leaving her job at the end of last year to move because she thought that’s what it would take to get here, she said.

Then a pandemic prompted shutdowns and lockdowns worldwide, sending employees home in early March.

A month later, she bought a cabin in Seldovia, which sits across Kachemak Bay from Homer.

“I really want to be in a place where I can invest in the people around me,” Corthell said. “And being in a city, it’s a little harder to do that.”

Work flexibility allows Alaska to be part of plans

Nationally, some Americans are moving from their big-city abodes to quieter, smaller places, all while maintaining their jobs.

It’s hard to say with any sort of hard data whether that’s occurring specifically in Alaska, said Gretchen Fauske, associate director at the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development.

“I think that trend is playing out here at a smaller scale,” said Fauske, who’s working on a report about remote work in Alaska, in a recent call.

Through her research, Fauske interviewed roughly 30 workers who either moved to Alaska to work remotely or already lived here and took remote jobs.

The interview subjects ranged from someone who had been living as a nomad and decided to settle in Anchorage to a few people who moved back to live closer to family but continued working during the pandemic.

“A lot of them were Alaskans who had left and then were working here during the pandemic and might stay, might not,” Fauske said.

She didn’t talk to as many people who thought, “Oh, it’s a pandemic, I’m going to go to Alaska for this time and work here,” though she’s heard secondhand of a few people who may have come up for a period of weeks, staying in an Airbnb and working remotely.

But in general, it’s hard to parse out in data who might be a remote worker, Fauske said. There isn’t real-time data that illustrates how many remote workers might be in the state at one time. Instead, she finds that information through word of mouth, co-working spaces and informal networks among remote workers.

“Anecdotally, it seems like there are a lot more people who are realizing that they can be flexible in the ways in which they work, whether they’re Alaskans or people visiting or returning who are making Alaska part of their plans,” she said.

Fauske is also researching how other communities are trying to lure remote workers. She found that what really attracts workers are welcoming communities, cultural activities, parks and trails, and civic engagement opportunities. Some places also offer remote workers a concierge service that provides information about local schools, libraries, recreation and restaurants.

The most common critique among workers she interviewed was the expensive yet comparatively slow internet in Alaska.

A trip north in the midst of a lockdown

Internet is a downside when it comes to remote work in the state, according to Jamin Agosti, 31, who works as a lawyer with Bay Area startup companies. He and his wife decided to leave San Francisco for Alaska in May 2020 as lockdowns swept the West Coast.

“We thought we’d drive up north, and at least get to somewhere where we could spend some time playing outside while the lockdown was in place,” Agosti said.

They spent the year biking, hiking and fishing. And over the past several months, as cities began to open back up, Agosti, who’s originally from Alaska, secured a fully remote position and has decided to stay.

“So, definitely in the short term, we plan to stay up here, keep enjoying the outdoors through at least one other winter and maybe get some more skiing and fat biking in,” he said.

Heather Aruffo isn’t originally from Alaska, but she got her master’s degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks before moving to Mongolia for a Fulbright grant. She got back from the fellowship in February 2020, hoping she could get a remote job and come to the state.

She works in medical writing, which had a fairly strong remote culture even before the pandemic, though not necessarily for those in the early stages of their careers, she said.

”The plan was like, move back to Alaska and work remotely as a medical writer, but I’m not sure I would have been able to pull that off ... without the pandemic,” she said.

By December 2020, she had moved to Anchorage. Aruffo said she moved because she has friends here and loves it, but she also cited financial reasons. It’s cheaper than other West Coast cities like Seattle and San Francisco, and that makes having a home with a yard — as well as a dog and a car — feasible.

Is Anchorage a ‘Zoom town’?

One aspect of the pandemic-driven workplace shift that’s not playing out in Anchorage is the phenomenon of “Zoom towns,” said Bill Popp, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. Zoom towns are places that are usually vacation towns — like Bend, Oregon, or Truckee, California — that workers from bigger cities moved to during the pandemic, driving up housing prices.

If Anchorage were really a Zoom town, the city would have drastically higher housing costs and much lower apartment vacancy rates, Popp said. Zoom towns also tend to be relatively close to larger cities in the Lower 48.

“We haven’t seen any of the symptoms of a Zoom town in Anchorage — none,” Popp said. “None that we can attribute to remote workers moving here because we’re just not seeing an appreciable number moving here.”

The economic development agency is campaigning to bring more remote workers to Anchorage, and Popp said they’ve heard from a few people — some who used to live here and are returning, and others who are interested in the “Alaska mystique.”

Clare Corthell splits her work time between San Francisco, left and her cabin in Seldovia, right. (Photos by Clare Corthell)

A remote cabin and a healthier relationship with work

Corthell, who bought the Seldovia cabin, is currently splitting her time between Seldovia and San Francisco.

“Seldovia’s been really good because it’s so small,” she said. “If you show up and you say, ‘I want to be a part of this community, I want to invest in it, I want to be a neighbor, I want to figure out how can contribute to it,’ you get more than you could ever put in.”

She recently spoke with her Seldovia neighbor about putting in a dock at their pond, with the potential for local kids to learn to kayak. That common investment and intergenerational scenario is hard to find in a place like San Francisco, she said.

“If they make us go back to the office here, I’m probably going make a different choice,” she said from her San Francisco home. “I don’t think I’m going to ever commit to going back to an office in San Francisco. I have no desire to do that.”

The office was manic. She was always trying to pace herself to catch up. Now she’s more deliberate and conscious of how she spends her time.

“It’s not that the pace has slowed down,” Corthell said. “It’s that I can have a different relationship with my work than I ever could when there was a ton of people around me.”

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