Working over lunch costs U.S. worker her job

U.S. worker fired for working during lunch break initially denied unemployment benefits, wins appeal
|Canadian Employment Law Today|Last Updated: 04/26/2012

A woman in the United States who was fired for doing work during her lunch break has won her appeal of an unemployment claim.

Sharon Smiley, 48, was an administrative assistant for Equity Lifestyle Properties, a real estate company in Chicago. The company had a policy that employees paid by the hour had to take a 30-minute lunch break every day. It insisted that employees follow the policy because it didn’t want to violate any labour laws or expose it to the risk of paying overtime.

On Jan. 28, 2010, Smiley didn’t plan to eat lunch, so she punched out for her lunch break and remained at her desk. Her manager spotted her working on her computer, answering the phone and responding to questions from other employees. He told Smiley to leave her desk and take her break. Smiley refused and the company’s HR director outlined the policy. The director also mentioned Smiley’s desk was at the front door, so it was important she wasn’t seen working over her lunch break.

Smiley, a 10-year employee who felt she could do what she wanted as long as she punched out, was eventually fired. To add insult to injury, when she applied for unemployment benefits, her application was denied because she had been fired for misconduct.

After further appeals were denied, Smiley went to court, which allowed her appeal. The circuit court and then the state’s appeal court found she was entitled to benefits because her misconduct was related to her doing more work for Equity, which was not against the company’s interests — misconduct must show a disregard for the employer’s interests for an employee to be ineligible for benefits in Illinois.

Though Smiley won unemployment benefits, she won’t get her job back as Illinois is what is often referred to as an “employment-at-will” state, where employers are free to dismiss employees for any reason, as long as it’s not discriminatory.

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