Would You Fire Someone for Working Through Lunch?

A Chicago administrative assistant has received unemployment benefits from what she believes was a wrongful termination.
January 17, 2012

After a two-year court battle, a Chicago woman who was fired for working through her lunch hour has been awarded unemployment benefits.

Sharon Smiley, 48, had worked for 10 years as a receptionist and administrative assistant at a Chicago real estate company called Equity Lifestyle Properties. On Jan. 28, 2010, she punched out of work for lunch but stayed at her desk working on a spreadsheet because she did not plan to eat that day, she told the Chicago Tribune.

"I thought, 'Well, I'm not hungry; I'll just do this work,'" she said, noting that a new boss had been piling the work on. Court filings show both sides agreed this was the first time Smiley had worked through lunch.

A manager told Smiley she was required to take a half-hour lunch break, a company policy for more than 10 years, and ordered her to go to human resources to discuss the issue. Smiley was then fired for misconduct and insubordination with the HR manager, who handed Smiley a pink slip claiming that Smiley interrupted her during the talk.

A Cook County judge ruled Smiley’s conduct didn’t amount to misconduct that would disqualify her for benefits, and the appellate court of Illinois agreed in a Jan. 11 ruling.

The "insubordination arose from [Smiley's] efforts to perform additional work for [her employer], beyond what was required of her," the court wrote, calling the denial of unemployment benefits to Smiley "clearly erroneous."

"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, I could do what I want."

Illinois law requires employers to provide employees with a lunch break, but the law cannot be read to require the firing of a worker who declines a break in order to finish her work, Michael LeRoy, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told ABC.

"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," he said.

Martin Malin, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Chicago-Kent College of Law, pointed out that companies can be held liable in suits for unpaid overtime if employees work during mandatory lunch breaks with a supervisor’s knowledge. This typically happens when an employee sues a company for unpaid overtime under labor or minimum-wage laws, he told the Tribune.

Smiley represented herself after several lawyers turned down her case.

When she won her appeal, she called one of the lawyers she'd approached.

"I said, 'This is Sharon Smiley, and I just wanted to call and let you know that I did win my case, and I did it on my own,'" she told the Tribune.

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