Why You Can Get Fired for Working Too Much

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The traditional reasons for letting an employee go include not getting to work on time, not doing the work assigned and unprofessional behavior. Now add this one: working during lunch.

Back in January 2010, Sharon Smiley, who worked as a receptionist and administrative assistant at a Chicago real estate company, clocked out of work but stayed at her desk to finish a project assigned by her manager. Another manager told her to she had to leave her desk and go to lunch. But she said no and continued working. That turned out to be a bad move. She was fired.

The company required that all hourly nonexempt employees take a 30-minute lunch break, and the issue was complicated by the fact that, as a receptionist, Smiley’s desk was at the front door of the company’s office. It seems that her managers felt it was unprofessional for her to eat in front of clients and potential clients who walked through the door.

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But Smiley not only lost her job – because she was fired with cause, she was denied unemployment benefits as well. So she took her former employer to court. Last week, an Illinois appeals court ruled that she couldn’t be denied unemployment benefits because she was not guilty of gross misconduct.

The Smiley case brings up an issue that few people knew existed: the possibility of being fired for doing too much work. In an age when employers are forgoing hiring and trying to squeeze as much work as possible out of current employees, you would think employers would love having an employee who works through lunch. But this kind of problem has come up before.

As far back as 2004, the New York Times wrote about how more Americans were working off the clock, some having been ordered to do so by their managers to keep costs down. But employees, angry at being forced to work more for the same pay, started suing – and winning. For instance, T-Mobile was forced to pay millions in a back-wages settlement after the Labor Department found that the wireless-phone company had forced 20,500 call-center employees to work off the clock.

Then an even stranger thing happened. Because of these sorts of costly settlements, and hoping to avoid more, companies began forbidding employees to work off the clock. Just last year, Target fired one of its managers for working off the clock. According to the lawsuit, the manager often had to answer work questions or solve problems while on his lunch break. But the company time clock wouldn’t allow him to clock back in until he was out for at least a half-hour, so he just worked anyway — and Target fired him.

Many employees today are finding themselves caught between incompatible demands by companies that 1) want work to get done, 2) do not want to pay overtime and 3) are paranoid about potential lawsuits. What’s an employee to do?

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First, make sure you know your company’s policy regarding when you can work, when you can take a lunch break and whether your employer allows overtime. (If so, they’re required by federal law to pay 1.5 times the usual hourly rate, but some companies let employees work overtime only with permission.)

Also, keep in mind that employers can generally fire people for any reason, as long as it’s not discriminatory. And, indeed, violating company policy against working on your lunch break or working overtime without approval is a legitimate — or at least legal — reason.

If you feel that you need more time to do your work, talk to your boss or manager about it; ask if you can get a few more hours each week. If not, and you’re unhappy with your job, it may be time to look elsewhere.

But the decision in the Smiley case makes at least one thing clear: firing someone for working through their lunch break is not grounds to deny that worker unemployment benefits.