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Local Column

AKST: Retirees should act now … maybe

I’m not confused about the predicament of state employees and the status of pension “reform” in Illinois.

Nope, not me.

Just in the past few days, I’ve learned that Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh said people should never wash jeans (spot clean them as necessary); Pat Sajak of “Wheel of Fortune” has a side job as a political pundit (“Global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists,” he says); and rock singer Axl Rose has been named “greatest” vocalist ever.

If those things are true, life must be hunky-dory. I’ll probably also learn soon that aluminum is a refreshing beverage.

Many of us are suffering pension reform fatigue. I’m particularly sensitive to those in the private sector who are directly involved via tax dollars and indirectly affected in more ways than I can count, but have even less information than state employees.

But as Northern Illinois University is by far the largest employer in DeKalb County, I feel obligated to continue reporting on this issue. Disclosure: NIU is my main source of employment.

The news media hasn’t done a particularly good job explaining pension problems. In our (weak) defense, it’s difficult to explain complex financial/political/societal situations in such a way that widely different audiences will pay attention to and understand them.

Politicians are worse because they caused this. Unions have a share of the blame. When you get right down to it, lots of people are to blame, except state employees who never missed a pension payment but face uncertain futures.

What’s hard is finding a solution that will pass constitutional muster and be acceptable to at least a majority of people (a solution that pleases everyone will never happen).

Anyway, I wrote earlier this month that at NIU and other state colleges and universities, massive numbers of people are retiring, many of them sooner than anticipated because of a language glitch in the new – but now blocked – law.

Confusion was widespread then. It’s worse now, but here’s what I know at the moment. My primary source on this is the State Universities Retirement System.

On May 14, Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge John Belz granted a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction stopping implementation of Public Act 98-599, the pension reform law passed in December. Several groups, mostly unions representing public sector workers, sued to stop implementation of the law until Illinois courts could rule on its constitutionality.

Meanwhile, SURS said it will continue to meet employees who have scheduled retirement appointments. One employee told me getting a retirement appointment was about as easy as hanging out with Axl Rose. Members will receive retirement estimates based on the current law, but not the new law that’s been blocked.

Given the language snafu that (at least partially) caused hundreds of university employees to retire sooner than expected, SURS said potential retirees may rescind retirement applications as long as they haven’t been finalized and no certificate of retirement has been issued. To do that, retirees must write to SURS indicating their desire to rescind their application. Those planning to retire in May should have letters postmarked no later than July 1. Those retiring in June need a postmarked letter no later than Aug. 1.

That’s if the jobs people may or may not retire from are still available.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter @JasonAkst.

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