Policy Watch Investigates

Legislator voted to cut jobless benefits he once received

When the state legislature passed an extensive overhaul of the unemployment insurance bill earlier this month, one lawmaker knew more than most about what an unemployment check can mean to a struggling family.

State Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican, said he spent more than a year collecting unemployment checks, up until his August 2011 appointment to finish out the term of his predecessor.

His credits the insurance with allowing himself, his wife Kathryn and their young son weather the months he was without work, a time when the family lived off the salary from his wife’s health care job and began to sell off possessions while Saine unsuccessfully tried to find work.

“I don’t approve of the stigma associated with it (unemployment),” said Saine, who describes himself as Ronald Reagan conservative on his campaign website. “Real people who want to work can’t find jobs.”

He sits in an unusual position – the program he benefited from for more than a year was drastically changed this month by the votes he and other lawmakers cast to overhaul the state’s unemployment insurance system.

Saine acknowledges the awkward fit, and said he understands the plight of the unemployed workers who will be able to collect unemployment for a fraction of the time Saine did.

The unemployment insurance plan, which Saine called his toughest vote, would help the state get out of debt, he said.

“It’s a tough position for all of us,” Saine said about the bill. “You do what you think you need to do.”

The bill was signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Pat McCrory and go into effect July 1. The overhaul sets a path for the state to pay back the $2.5 billion it borrowed from the federal government in the height of the recession to pay unemployment benefits, a move that supporters of the bill said will spur businesses to create more jobs. Advocates for workers and the poor, including the N.C. Justice Center,* criticized the bill and warned it would leave thousands of families unable to pay for food, heat and housing as they looked for jobs.

Developed with significant input from the N.C. Chamber of Commerce in a series of non-public meetings before the session, it will cut the maximum amount of weeks a jobless worker can collect from 26 to a sliding scale of 12 to 20 weeks, depending on the unemployment level. The maximum weekly benefit will drop to $350, down from $535.

The changes in the law fall largely on workers, and are being called the harshest in the nation by groups like the National Employment Law Project, who are concerned about what will happen to families of the unemployed unable to find work in the North Carolina’s dismal job market. The state unemployment rate is still high, and at 9.2 percent is above the national average and the fifth highest in the nation.

The law will make thousands of North Carolina’s unemployed worker ineligible for federal extensions of unemployment, a predicament that acting U.S. Labor Secretary Seth Harris called “grievous blow” that would mean the state turning its back on $780 million worth of federal funds to help an estimated 170,000 long-term unemployed workers that will have their benefits stopped after July 1. The extended benefits can only be available to workers on state rolls for more than 26 weeks.

“As a result, families struggling to secure their place in the middle class will suffer a grievous blow, and the state’s economy will lose $780 million in federal funds that are vital to reducing North Carolina’s high unemployment rate,” Harris said in written statement.

Saine said he didn’t like the unemployment bill he voted on, nor any of the alternatives. The solution, he felt, was getting the state out of debt and he believes that businesses will begin to hire if unemployment insurance isn’t as high.

He didn’t speak about his personal experience with unemployment during debates, nor did he mention it in the regular updates he gives on a constituent services website. N.C. Policy Watch asked Saine about his experience on unemployment after viewing copies of his statements of economic interest, which stated that he collected income from unemployment benefits in both 2010 and 2011. (Click here and here to view copies of Saine’s ethics forms.)

Saine said he lost his job in May of 2010, before he served with the N.C. General Assembly. He had been in sales with Helms Security, Inc., a small security and burglar company in Lincolnton that scaled back its operations when revenue dropped for the company as a result of the recession.

For the next approximately 15 months, he remained unemployed while looking for work. His weekly benefits were around $300 a week, and Saine said was looking for jobs every day in addition to the occasionally consulting job, but couldn’t find anyone to hire him. The job loss was emotional, he said, for someone like himself who took pride in working and wanted to work.

“I don’t think you truly know until you’ve been there,” Saine said. “I would go to interviews begging for work and get told I was overqualified.”

He volunteered at his local fire department, even obtaining a degree in fire science that he thought could help transition him to a new career as a fire fighter.

“My take on things are maybe a little bit different,” he said. “I know real people that can’t find jobs and want to work.”

When unemployed, Saine said he and his wife, who didn’t live a lavish style to begin with, cut back on expenses.

A stroke of luck came in August 2011, when the county Republican Party he chaired selected him to take over the legislative seat left vacant when former N.C. Rep. Johnathan Rhyne left the legislature to move to nearby Gastonia.

That position came with pay, $13,951 per year, making Saine ineligible for unemployment benefits.

He said he’s still looking for work, and that he understood more than others what it’s like to rely on unemployment. He hopes his decision to vote for the changes was the right now, and said the criticisms of he and fellow Republicans as being uncaring to the unemployed is unfair. He hopes jobs will come soon, to the more than 440,000 North Carolinians who remain unemployed.

“We always get painted as the mean old Republicans, that’s not who I am,” he said. “To say we’re out of touch, that’s simply not true.”

* Note: N.C. Policy Watch is a project housed under the N.C. Justice Center, an advocacy group for the working poor. The Justice Center was not involved in the reporting or writing of this article.

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or sarah@ncpolicywatch.com.

 

(Image: http://www.jasonsaine.com/)