Chicago Secretary Fired For Working During Lunch Wins Court Battle

Sharon Smiley fired working during lunchA Chicago woman fired for working through her lunch break has won her legal battle to collect the unemployment benefits denied her by her former employer.

The aggrieved employee, Sharon Smiley (pictured at left), succeeded in her effort despite a lack of legal help. None of the attorneys from whom Smiley sought counsel agreed to take the case, she says, because they thought she was bound to lose. Smiley ended up representing herself -- and won, the Chicago Tribune reports.

Though Smiley was ultimately successful in her legal fight, she has endured tough times since being fired two years ago. She had to put together a living working odd jobs before landing another full-time job last month.

In January 2010, she worked downtown as a receptionist at Equity Lifestyle Properties Inc., a position she'd held for 10 years. One day she decided to work through her lunch break because a manager assigned her work that Smiley wanted to finish.

"I thought, 'Well, I'm not hungry; I'll just do this work ... so when I get back from lunch, I can do my original work that I'm supposed to be doing,' " the 48-year-old Smiley told the Tribune.

Smiley was under pressure to do more and more work, she says, a tactic that she felt was being utilized to force her to resign. Instead, as the newspaper reports, Smiley committed to working harder, even though the added stress contributed to a stroke, she testified at an unemployment hearing in 2010.

From the Tribune report:

On this day, a new manager told her she needed to take her break. Both sides agreed that this was the first time Smiley worked during lunch, records show.

Smiley told her manager that she had already punched out but wanted to finish the extra work because she thought her break time was her own.

"I asked her how she had taken a break when she remained sitting at the desk, answering phones and working on a spreadsheet," the manager testified.

Smiley testified: "I would call myself, you know, being considerate (for) doing the work for someone else on my lunchtime, and I didn't think it was going to be a problem."

Smiley's boss then told her to report to the director of human resources. During the meeting, the company charged that Smiley became insubordinate and she was fired.

Knowing that she was eligible for unemployment benefits, Smiley applied three times but was denied. She then took her case to circuit court, which ruled in her favor, granting her the benefits.

An appeals court subsequently agreed with the lower court's ruling, finding that Smiley's insubordination wasn't sufficiently egregious to warrant her discharge.

"Workers generally have to be guilty of gross misconduct, which includes insubordination," Cheryl Anderson, law professor at Southern Illinois University School of Law told "Good Morning America."

"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."

As for Smiley, she's true to her name in her new receptionist's position. Her current employer has a much more liberal lunch policy, GMA reports.

She is free to sit at her desk during lunch or read magazines, Smiley says. "And in my area, they have two flat-screen TVs on the wall."

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