Brown: Little old ladies win one in Springfield

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Nancy Solomon and her grandchildren. From her Facebook page.

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I believe I have figured out the solution to break the legislative logjam in Illinois government.

We need to get the little old ladies involved, the more of them the better.

The little old men are welcome to join in, too, but the little old ladies are the key, because if I may say so without being patronizing, they can be relentless.

This was proven by the announcement this week that Gov. Bruce Rauner, Democratic and Republican legislators, business and labor had come to agreement on legislation to reform unemployment insurance.

A key element of this important compromise is the repeal of an Illinois law that for more than three decades has screwed older workers in this state out of their unemployment benefits if they lost their jobs while drawing Social Security.

And I can promise you that Illinois would be continuing its dubious distinction as the last state in the union still enforcing what is called the “Social Security offset” if not for the dogged work of some righteously indignant older women who took hold of this issue and refused to let go.

OPINION

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Ellen Levine, now age 75, was the first to bring this injustice to my attention four years ago.

Levine, of Niles, was laid off from her job and applied for unemployment benefits.

That’s when she learned that her unemployment check would be cut by an amount equal to 50 percent of her Social Security benefits, leaving with her with a small fraction of the amount to which she otherwise would have been entitled.

State officials explained to her that this was the result of the offset law.

Levine would learn that an estimated 17,500 older Illinois workers received the same rude awakening every year, some of them left with no unemployment benefits at all, a cruel double whammy for those finding themselves without a job.

Levine was incredulous — and mad. She enlisted me in her personal campaign to repeal the law.

By then, Nancy Solomon of Rogers Park, had already been working on the same cause for two years after her own surprise introduction to the law.

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Solomon, now 76, probably pursued this issue harder than anybody in the state.

“It became a cottage industry with me,” said Solomon, a freelance writer with a talent for poison penmanship.

Solomon helped enlist the influential American Association of Retired Persons in the cause, and generally made herself such a pain in the butt that business and labor leaders were eager to find a solution just to make her go away.

With AARP aggressively involved, more little old ladies joined the fray, including some with more tact than Solomon. In addition, state Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, two Chicago Democrats who I should probably point out are considerably younger, introduced legislation to repeal the offset law.

Even then, it didn’t look like there would be any resolution because business and labor leaders couldn’t agree on how to pay the estimated $25 million cost of giving older workers their full benefits.

Solomon figured the matter was dead for 2015, caught in the Springfield gridlock. She decided to put her energies into having her knees replaced.

“I had done all the rabble-rousing I could for the year,” she said.

But then something broke loose. Illinois’ new governor needed to show that he could compromise and win improvements for the state’s business climate.

The result: seniors get to collect their full unemployment benefits in exchange for Illinois employers receiving common sense protections to prevent workers fired for specific instances of misconduct from collecting theirs.

It’s hardly the biggest legislation the governor and General Assembly will tackle this year, but a positive development just the same.

Levine and Solomon were both ecstatic, although Levine was disappointed to learn it won’t apply retroactively to those previously harmed by the offset.

“If I blazed the way for someone else, I’m happy,” she said.

It was Solomon who suggested to me that the key in winning change was getting the little old ladies riled up, the ones who don’t know how to take “no” for an answer.

Let’s sic them on the budget.

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