Jason Saine received unemployment compensation for more than a year before he landed a part-time job as a state legislator in North Carolina. This month, he joined his fellow Republicans in supporting a bill that slashes unemployment insurance in the state.
Saine says he wrestled with the decision to support the bill right up until the final moment before he cast his vote.
"I know some will try to frame it as hypocritical but I see it from all sides and there are no easy answers right now," Saine told The Huffington Post. "It's not a glorious vote by any measure."
The bill reduces the maximum weekly unemployment check from $530 to $350 and effectively slashes the duration of benefits from 73 weeks to anywhere between 12 and 20 weeks. The ultimate purpose of the measure is to reduce North Carolina businesses' tax burden by speeding repayment of $2.5 billion the state borrowed from the federal government to pay unemployment claims over the past few years.
"We're in a tough time and we’ve got tough decisions to make and it certainly was tougher for me because I've dealt with it on a personal level," Saine said. "I've got a 4-and-a-half-year-old son and we've got debt piling up."
Saine learned the value of unemployment compensation after he lost his job selling burglary alarms and other security paraphernalia in May 2010. He started claiming roughly $300 a week while he searched for new work and his family trimmed its expenses.
"All the sudden I started a family and boom, the rug's pulled out from under me and I have no opportunities," Saine recalled, adding that the experience taught him about the stigma of unemployment. He said the notion that laid-off workers are happy to collect jobless pay and not search for work -- a view often espoused by Republicans -- is wrong.
"It did not have the effect of becoming lazy," he said. "I don't think that’s the case with a lot of these folks that are having to suffer through it."
Saine couldn't find steady work until county Republicans tapped him to fill a vacant seat in the North Carolina General Assembly in August 2011. The position pays less than $14,000 and is part-time, so Saine's job hunt continues.
This year, confronted with the unemployment proposal, Saine weighed his personal experience against his belief that government borrowing and spending hasn't generated enough jobs. He thinks it's time to try something else, and figures lower business taxes could be that thing.
"On one hand [more unemployment spending] is saddling future generations with debt," he said. "On the other, it's this immediate help today, but the same help we've been doing for however many years now. It's not turning the economy around."
During the public debate over the unemployment bill, Saine didn't mention that he'd been on unemployment himself. Sarah Ovaska, an investigative reporter with an advocacy group called N.C. Policy Watch, discovered Saine had been receiving unemployment compensation when she looked at ethics forms he'd previously filed with the state. The forms listed his sources of income, which included the jobless pay.
From now on, North Carolinians who are laid off through no fault of their own will be eligible for less than half the duration of benefits he received, and many will get smaller checks, too. But Saine said he didn't want people to think he'd shut the door behind him after making his own exit from unemployment
"I didn't make the decision with some malicious intent to go shutting the back door and forget you," Saine said.
Much of the shortened benefits period won't even result in savings for the state; the bill will cause North Carolina, where the jobless rate is 9.2 percent, to lose eligibility for 47 weeks of extended benefits provided by the federal government. Acting U.S. Labor Secretary Seth Harris said the legislation will result in a "grievous blow" to North Carolina families.