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US woman fired for skipping lunch wins unemployment claim

Washington, Wed, 18 Jan 2012 ANI

Washington, Jan 18 (ANI): A Chicago woman, who was fired for skipping lunch at her job, has won an unemployment claim after an appeals court in Illinois found the denial of benefits "clearly erroneous".


Sharon Smiley had worked for 10 years as a receptionist and administrative assistant at a Chicago real estate company until she was fired for skipping lunch one day.


According to the 48-year-old, she punched out of work for lunch 28th January 2010, but remained at her desk to finish a project that had been assigned to her by a manager because she did not plan to eat that day.


Smiley, who had passed her 10-year anniversary with Equity Lifestyle Properties Inc. more than a month before, said that the another manager told her it was time for her to go to lunch and step away from her desk, but she refused.


That manager observed her working on a spreadsheet on her computer, answering the phone and responding to questions by people who approached her desk, according to a filing from the appellate court of Illinois.


The company's human resources director then became involved, explaining that hourly non-exempt employees were required to take a 30-minute lunch break, a policy that had been in the company handbook for 10 years, according to the filing.


Not following the policy would be a violation of Illinois' labour laws, the HR director said.


The prominent location of Smiley's desk, "which was directly at the front door of the office, made this particularly important for her", according to the human resources director in the court filing. She and Smiley had "many discussions ... over her eating breakfast at her desk", the filing states.


"I knew you couldn't eat lunch at your desk," SBC News quoted Smiley as saying.


"I was under the impression that because I was punched out I could do what I want," she said.


The court filing also stated that Smiley's job had became so stressful that she suffered a stroke and was off work for almost three months, beginning 13th July, 2009.


Michael LeRoy, law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said like several states, Illinois also has a law that requires employers to provide employees a lunch break. But the law cannot be read to require an employer to fire a worker who refuses to take a break in order to finish her work.


"Nonetheless, Illinois is an employment-at-will state, which means the employer can fire someone for a good reason, no reason, or a bad reason, as long as it is not discriminatory," LeRoy said.


Cheryl Anderson, law professor with Southern Illinois University School of Law, said companies often have policies that are designed to limit the number of hours employees can work in a given day or week, largely in order to avoid overtime pay obligations. Such policies often require employer permission to work beyond an employee's regular scheduled hours.


After being fired, Smiley learned that she was ineligible for unemployment benefits because she had been discharged for misconduct connected with her work.


She appealed to the Illinois Department of Employment Security's board of review three times, was denied, then took her case to a circuit court. That court ruled Smiley, who did not challenge the firing, was eligible for benefits.


Smiley received a check with a lump sum on 28th November for several months of unemployment, a percentage of her previous salary. Then she received a check every two weeks for 528 dollars until she obtained her latest job last month.


The appellate court of Illinois affirmed the circuit court ruling Jan. 11, saying the "insubordination arose from Smiley's efforts to perform additional work for her employer, beyond what was required of her", as first reported Monday in the Chicago Tribune.


"The insubordination occurred in a meeting with her superiors which lasted only four minutes," the court ruling said.


The court ruling also said that there was evidence that managers had been able to work with her in the past to perform new tasks with which she was uncomfortable. (ANI)


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