This story originally aired and was published on KNKX on Oct. 6, 2023.
Matthew Steward is practicing for what’s about to be his newest side hustle. If he passes the test this fall, he’ll become a substitute school bus driver for Orcas Island School District.
Right now, the bus is mostly empty: just an instructor, and imaginary kids.
“Open your door,” the instructor said, “say ‘quiet —'”
“Quiet on the bus,” Steward said.
“Look and listen,” the instructor said. He’s almost there. A little more practice.
Steward lives on Orcas Island — a far-flung isle in the upper left corner of Washington state. On sunny days you can see Canada. Most people get around by ferry.
Steward came here leading youth sailing trips for the Seattle YMCA, but stayed for the close-knit community feeling. Around 18,000 people live here year-round. As he goes about his several jobs, it seems like Steward is constantly honking, waving or having a conversation with a neighbor.
That’s what drew him here: It felt like living on his college campus at University of Washington, where he would see someone he knew every block.
One reason Steward is able to take this new side job is because of a new schedule change at the county: starting this month, 70% of the workforce is switching to 32 hours a week, but getting paid roughly the same.
County leaders were faced with a tight budget, around one in six positions unfilled and a union workforce looking for their first real raise since the pandemic hit. They hope it will draw people interested in a particular island work-life balance.
“Bringing in new people was difficult because they could be out in the private sector, making so much more money right now, commanding such a greater salary,” said county council chair Cindy Wolf.
“We were hurting, because we were competing with that.”
The cost of living is high here; gas is the most expensive in the state. Home prices have skyrocketed. In March of this year, most homes were going for close to a million dollars. The median price was half that before the pandemic.
It’s a haven for the wealthy; more than a third of all homes are vacation homes. There’s a saying here: “Everyone has either three homes or three jobs.”
“I’ve topped out at five jobs at a time,” Steward said.
He plans to fit his bus driver job in between working for the YMCA and his main job: maintenance worker for San Juan County — replacing air filters, picking up parks, filling in for short-staffed departments.
There’s a serious labor shortage across the islands. The ferries are frequently canceled because they don’t have enough workers. Orcas Island school district hasn’t gotten a single applicant for their open full-time bus driver position.
“There were times when it was one driver doing everyone on the island,” Steward said. “Which, I think, takes a significant portion of the day, and so kids get to school late and then have to leave early.”
County leaders are hoping the switch to a 32-hour work week will draw more job applicants, and help keep workers like Steward. It amounts to a large hourly raise.
There’s a question if — like Steward — more people will take side jobs. In many surveys, lower paid and working-class people say their preference is around 40 or more hours a week.
“When you have fewer hours often people say, with that extra time, ‘I’d like to turn that into money, please, because I will live the life that I want to live,'” said Matthew Bidwell, a professor of management at the Wharton School.
Local residents who spoke to KNKX have a range of feelings — most are cautiously open to seeing how it goes.
“I’m ambivalent,” said Chief Noel Monin of the San Juan Fire Protection District. “If people can stand up and do good with all that extra free time, that would be the right way. … It’s novel, so we’ll see. Humanity’s on the edge of novel experience anyway. No point getting bent out of shape over it.”
Several county employees already work with Monin as volunteer firefighters, including county IT worker Eric Rezabeck, who spent his birthday last year fighting a fire that burned down a beloved dive bar in downtown Friday Harbor.
At Cousin Vinnie’s NY Pizza Cafe a block down, owner Vinnie Vela works the window seven days a week. Since the pandemic it’s just been him; hiring dependable employees is too hard, he said.
Vela is not against the county’s move, but doesn’t totally understand it. Why not just have people work four 10-hour shifts?
“I would be much happier with four days — that extra two hours ain’t gonna kill me. And I have an extra day off,” Vela said.
Having coffee with him is Friday Harbor’s mayor, Ray Jackson.
“But it’s a mindset. It’s a mentality,” Jackson said. “In the minds of a lot of these young people nowadays, ‘that’s an extra two hours of working. That don’t make no sense to me.'”
A recent study of close to 200 businesses in several countries showed that after they switched to 32 hours a week, families spent less on childcare. That could be the case here, where daycares and preschools are hard to get into, even on San Juan, the most populous island.
There is one daycare on the island that will take children from the age of one and is operates from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., according to Frances Robertson, a marine biologist and the county employee union’s vice president. She’s one of the lucky ones who got her children into that daycare.
“They’re open four days a week, so they’re not even open five days,” Robertson said.
Robertson plans to spend her extra time studying and producing more research on local whales. These islands are also lush undersea: Salmon and whales come here to feed on teeming millions of forage fish.
Robertson was shocked when the county made its 32-hour proposal, but she has hopes that it will draw people to this beautiful, somewhat forgotten, not-quite-American, not-quite-Canadian place. Robertson herself is British-Canadian and hardly feels like she’s leaving the U.S. when she goes to visit family.
On a recent weekday afternoon as she walked on a hill above the San Juan coastline, below her an orca mother and calf suddenly appeared just yards away from the beach.
“There they are,” Robertson said, gratification coming through in her British accent, but not surprise. “It’s pretty cool, hey?”
On the beach below, a man walked his dog right by, unperturbed. For the islanders, it’s just another Monday.
— Reported by Scott Greenstone / KNKX Public Radio
Did you find this information useful? If so, share it with a friend, a family member or colleague
and ask them to subscribe to Salish Current (it’s free) for more stories like this.
- Comment: We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in the Salish Current.
- Contribute: To contribute a Community Voices essay, email your subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (email@example.com) and he will respond with guidelines.
- Donate: Support nonpartisan, fact-based, no-paywall local journalism from the Salish Current.