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Woman fired for working during lunch wins court battle

By Steve Schmadeke, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Sharon Smiley was taught by her father that success is born out of hard work, and he demonstrated that truth over 47 years as a railroad worker.

But when Smiley put that principle into practice, she was fired — for the first time in her life — from a receptionist job she had held for a decade.

Her offense? Voluntarily doing extra work one day during her lunch break.

Not only was Smiley fired, but the realty company she worked for challenged her unemployment benefits, saying she was guilty of misconduct and insubordination. Smiley says several lawyers declined to take her case, telling her she was bound to lose, so she represented herself.

Now, after almost two years at the brink of financial ruin, Smiley, 48, says she is basking in “blessings.”

In December, after months spent driving all over the region to fill temp jobs and cooking up soup or beef stew to help bring in tips at a Saturday daytime bartending job, Smiley was hired as a full-time receptionist at a downtown advertising firm.

And last week, an appeals court found that the state’s denial of her unemployment benefits was “clearly erroneous,” upholding a Cook County judge’s earlier ruling.

Though Smiley had begun receiving the benefits since the lower court’s Nov. 17, 2010, ruling — about nine months after she was fired — she would have been required to repay the money if a higher court ruled against her.

“I just didn’t think I was going to see the light,” she said last week at her south suburban Riverdale, Ill., home. Smiley has been working full time since age 19, when she left college to support her young son.

Her descent to the edge of financial ruin started in January 2010. She had decided not to eat lunch that day, and because another manager assigned her some extra work, Smiley wanted to finish it.

“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,’ ” she said.

Smiley said her new boss had been assigning her more and more work, which she thought was an attempt to force her resignation. But she needed the job and just worked harder, she said. Still, the added stress contributed to a stroke, Smiley testified at her 2010 unemployment hearing.

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 to 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 speak with the company’s human resources director. The HR director testified that Smiley interrupted her during a four-minute meeting that concluded with Smiley being fired.

“It was just so unbelievable,” Smiley said. “It was a total horror story.”

The company, Equity Lifestyle Properties Inc., said it was trying to follow regulations, also written in its employee handbook, that require employees to take a break. A woman answering the phone at the company Friday declined to make anyone available or take a message about the case.

Companies can be held liable if employees are working during mandatory lunch breaks and supervisors know about it, said Martin Malin, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law. Malin also heads the law school’s Institute for Law and the Workplace.

The issue typically arises when an employee sues a company for unpaid overtime under labor or minimum-wage laws, he said, and there is great variability in how each case is handled.

“The law is pretty clear in principle but hazy in application,” he said.

But those legal issues were never raised in Smiley’s case. The courts also haven’t been asked to rule whether Smiley’s firing was proper. Employment in Illinois generally is considered to be at the will of the employer, who does not need cause to fire workers.

In this case, the issue was strictly whether Smiley’s actions were misconduct and insubordination, which could disqualify her from unemployment benefits. A Cook County judge and appellate panel found that they weren’t.

Smiley quickly fell behind on her mortgage, property taxes and utility bills.

When people complimented her on her weight loss, she didn’t tell them she couldn’t afford groceries. She worried about losing her home and destroying any chance for her daughter — who Smiley said earns all A’s at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. — to obtain loans for law school.

Smiley said her Chicago church, Compassion Baptist, helped her keep her home, paying some of her bills and providing emotional and prayer support.

Head pastor Austin Smith said Smiley worked hard to keep her head above water and find a new job. He said the circumstances of her job loss — being fired for doing extra work — only made her current success more satisfying.

“It’s not all bad news,” Smith said. “People get through tough times. Even in this economy, you only need one job. You have to believe there is one job out there for you.”

Smiley appealed the state’s denial of benefits to Cook County courts. On the day her appeal went before Cook County Judge Sanjay Tailor, Smiley was 10th in line, she said. The first nine appeals were denied, but Tailor granted hers, finding her actions didn’t rise to the level of misconduct.

“I said to myself, ‘Did he just say he’s going to award me my unemployment?’ ” Smiley said. “My eyes got big and got watery … but I didn’t let any tears fall.”

Smiley said she left a message afterward for one of the lawyers who had turned down her case.

“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.’ ”

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