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Court rules in favor of woman fired for working during lunch

California employers are responsible for following their own policies regarding employees’ rights in the workplace in addition to federal and state labor and employment laws. Because these laws can be complex, even for human resources departments, it is important that employees seek legal guidance if they believe that their rights have been violated in any way.

A woman recently won her two-year legal battle after she was fired from her job of over 10 years simply for working during lunch. The receptionist, who was employed at a real estate company, was terminated and her unemployment benefits were challenged by the company after it was discovered that woman voluntarily worked during one lunch break in January 2010. After holding several temporary jobs since she was fired, she was hired last month as a receptionist at another firm and is very pleased to learn that she will be able to keep her unemployment benefits after being fired two years ago.

The woman’s employer defended its case against the former employee by producing policy documents requiring employees to take a break during the workday, but the courts found this evidence insufficient to warrant the denial of the woman’s unemployment benefits, especially since she only worked during lunch on one occasion.

The woman testified that her supervisor had been increasing her workload, and the only way she thought she would be able to complete her tasks would be to work during lunch. She even suspects that her supervisors were conspiring to give her too much work in an attempt to force her to quit. The company’s actions nearly bankrupted its victim, forcing her to seek financial help from others while she sought new employment and fought for her unemployment benefits.

Most states have laws that require employers to provide breaks for employees who work shifts longer than five hours. However, many employees are forced to work through their lunch breaks, and when they refuse, they are sometimes fired. This case, however, shows that employers may unfairly terminate an employee for almost any reason, including working longer and harder than required.

The company’s attempts to block the woman’s unemployment benefits were decidedly “erroneous,” according to the appeals court ruling this month in Illinois. The firm had argued that the woman was insubordinate and thus did not deserve to receive unemployment payments. The judge however, concluded that there was no evidence that suggested that the woman was insubordinate while she worked at the company for 10 years.

Source: Chicago Tribune, “Woman fired for working during lunch wins court battle,” Steve Schmadeke, Jan. 18, 2012


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