Chicago Woman Fired For Working During Lunch, Fights For Benefits

Should a company be allowed to fire someone for working hard? Apparently, Equity Lifestyle Properties Inc., thinks it should be allowed to do so. The Chicago company fired Sharon Smiley, who had worked there for ten years as a receptionist and administrative assistant, for working through her lunch break.

According to Illinois labor laws, employees are guaranteed a lunch break, but does this mean that employees are required to take advantage of that time? Professor Michael LeRoy, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, claims the law cannot be interpreted as a requirement for companies to fire those employees who do not want to take a break. Additionally, Smiley had actually clocked out for (as she was an hourly employee), and was therefore technically on her lunch break. Equity Lifestyle Properties Inc. did not seem to think that was adequate, and after Smiley refused to stop working the company dismissed her.

Firing an employee for hard work may seem odd, but Illinois is an employment-at-will state so employers can fire workers for any reason so long as the firing is not discriminatory.

However, insult to injury was added when Smiley learned she could not receive unemployment benefits for her “misconduct” at work. In order for a worker to be denied unemployment benefits for misconduct, “[they] generally have to be guilty of gross misconduct, which includes insubordination,” Cheryl Anderson, law professor with Southern Illinois University School of Law said. “The bar is set high for the employer to prove that, and in this case, the court found the employer’s argument that her actions amounted to insubordination to be inadequate.”

Smiley had appealed the initial denial of her unemployment benefits to the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s board of review, and when she denied there three times Smiley appealed to a circuit court. That court ruled that Smiley was eligible for benefits, a ruling upheld by the appellate court of Illinois. The appellate court noted that Smiley’s “insubordination arose from [Smiley’s] efforts to perform additional work for [her employer], beyond what was required of her.” Smiley was then awarded a lump sum of benefits owed her, as well as $528 every two weeks until she found work last month.

Work hard seems to have paid off for Smiley, though she had to fight an upwards battle for two years to gain the fruit of her labor.