Receptionist Wins Suit Against Equity LifeStyle Properties
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Sharon Smiley was taught by her father that success comes from 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 at Equity Lifestyle Properties Inc.
Her offense? Voluntarily doing extra work one day during her lunch break, The Chicago Tribune reported.
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 area 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 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 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 (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 go 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."
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.