It seems crazy that a business would fire someone for doing “free work” on her lunch break, right?? Well that’s what happened to the woman photographed above and she’s finally getting unemployment benefits after two years of fighting and financial ruin:
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. After a two-year battle, an appeals court in Illinois has found that denial of her unemployment benefits was “clearly erroneous.”
Smiley, 48, punched out of work for lunch Jan. 28, 2010, but remained at her desk to finish a project assigned by a manager because she did not plan to eat that day, she said. Smiley, who had passed her 10-year anniversary with the company more than a month before, said 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 Smiley 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’ labor laws, the HR director said. “I knew you couldn’t eat lunch at your desk,” Smiley told ABC News. “I was under the impression that because I was punched out and I could do what I want.”
Smiley said her job had became so stressful that she suffered a stroke and was off work for almost three months, beginning July 13, 2009, according to the court filing. After being fired, Smiley learned 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. An unemployed person in Illinois is qualified for unemployment unless there is misconduct, which “has been defined as conduct evincing such willful or wanton disregard of an employer’s interests,” according to the state’s legal test in a ruling from the board of review.
Smiley received a check with a lump sum on Nov. 28 for several months of unemployment, a percentage of her previous salary. Then she received a check every two weeks for $528 until she obtained her latest job last month.
After nine months of unemployment, Smiley obtained a similar job at another company on Dec. 13. She said her new employer has a more liberal lunch policy.
“They told me I could sit at my desk, I could be at my computer during lunch, or I could look at magazines. And in my area, they have two flat-screen TVs on the wall,” she said with a chuckle.
Good for her!