Safety and OSHA News

Caught sleeping on light duty: Was firing justified?

Some experts advise companies to make light-duty tasks for injured workers tedious to help motivate the employees to return to their regular tasks. It appears this injured worker’s light duty was so boring that she fell asleep on the job. 

Christina Wellington injured her wrist working for Bemis Company in Pennsylvania.

She was given a light duty job “sitting at a table and flipping through plastic bags,” according to court records.

One day, the company safety specialist caught Wellington sleeping at her light-duty job for about five minutes. He took a photo and a short video of her sleeping. The company fired her.

Wellington filed a workers’ comp claim, including a request for wage benefits after she was fired.

A workers’ comp judge granted her injury claim for medical coverage but held that she was not eligible for wage benefits because she was fired for bad faith. She appealed to the Worker’s Compensation Board which upheld the judge’s ruling. She then took her case to a state court.

Bemis presented evidence that sleeping on the job was a rule violation punishable by suspension or firing and that Wellington was aware of that policy. The safety specialist testified, and the photo and video of Wellington sleeping were entered as evidence.

Wellington claimed she wasn’t sleeping, saying that in the video, the hoodie she was wearing obscured her eyes, making it difficult to see if she was really sleeping.

She also claimed that others at Bemis hadn’t received the same punishment for sleeping on the job.

Bemis’ Human Resources Manager testified about the differences between the various cases of sleeping on the job.

The court said the testimony of the HR and safety managers and the photographic and video evidence were more than enough to uphold the ruling that Wellington was fired for bad faith and she shouldn’t receive workers’ comp wage benefits.

One thought on this case: This company had enough instances of workers falling asleep on the job so that the HR Manager could distinguish between those that were fireable offenses and those that weren’t. How many instances of workers falling asleep on the job have you had? And have you found that making light-duty jobs undesirable helps motivate injured employees to get back to their regular jobs? Let us know in the comments below.

(Wellington v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, Commonwealth Court of PA, No. 658 C.D. 2011, 10/28/11)

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  1. Sleeping on the job should never be permissable and the courts made the correct call on this one. To the question of wether a light duty task should be tedious in order to encourage an employee to return to their regular task, I personally agree, however our corporate lawers tell us that giving an injured employee a tedious (ie less desirable) task can be considered retribution and opens the door to legal action.

  2. If you have ever been put on “light duty” due to an injury, you know just how unbelievably boring it can be. The fact that companies put injured employees on “light duty” is because it is ordered by a Doctor, not of the employees request to the employer. The light duty jobs are so tedious in and of themselves that if the HR manager or the supervisor were put on this job, they would probably fall asleep themselves.
    If the employee did in fact “go to sleep” by their own choice, the terminatin was warranted, but if the employee “dozed off” due to the tedious nature of the job being done they should have been suspended not terminated because of this.
    This seems to be a case of the employer not wanting to continue this persons employment or that they were not willing to or wanting to deal with a workmans compensation claim.

  3. Workers Compensation is not a reward it is a way – by design it is an employer protection mechanism. If an employee is injured doing their regular duty, and they are returned to light duty, to me, that is a priveledge of the employee. It is proven that employees get well faster if they are productive. Not every job is energy jolting and exciting. If you are a boreing person, you will get bored doing almost anything. Sleeping on the job is not compensible-even if you are a hooker. The employer made it possible for the employee to continue employment and continue their regular pay. The court was correct in their ruling. To have ruled otherwise would have altered every case from here on out. You want to get compensated for sleeping on the job, start a company and you pay people to sleep on the job.

  4. The Courts obviously got it right. One comment I would like to add is that this shows the importance of disciplining all employees and documentation. It seems logical that if the company did not have the supporting documentation of other terminations as a result of this rule violation then the claimant’s case would have been affirmed, and she would have been awarded judgement in her favor. This is a very important point about discipline and holding employees accountable to not only safety policies but *all* policies.

    As to whether or not light duty jobs should be tedious. Too often light duty is almost a reward or can be perceived as more desirable to an employee. Wages remain close to the same, and so sit down office work can seem a blessing to an employee whose normal job is often times dirty and/or hot. Also the monotony of a job can sometimes make anything more enjoyable short term.
    I believe it is important for light duty work to be meaningful, yet not desirable. Some of the best restricted duty jobs are “beautification” projects. Things that are easily supervised and have an impact on the overall work environment. Painting, cleaning, organizing, identifying, etc. No one likes painting or cleaning, but it is meaningful, improves housekeeping and safety; improves working conditions, aids in maintenance and is easily supervised.

    Light duty does not have to be, and in fact should never be, punitive; but it should not be more desirable than regular work.

  5. How would the possibility of sleep apnea or low blood sugar change your responses. I don’t think a one time incident of dozing on the job constitutes any of the responses suggested. Throwing the book at someone for what could be beyond their control could lower morale and productivity within the workforce. They should show concern for the employee’s health. A compassionate discussion with the employee about how the unacceptable behavior needs to be corrected and the question of how to approach the problem together as worker and supervisor could create loyalty and build team cohesiveness beyond imagination.

  6. @Coach Those possibilities would not change my responses at all. If an employee has a medical condition that negatively impacts performance of their job, then action must be taken. Granted the ADA requires that reasonable accomodation be made for disability, by I think naptime is a little outside the scope of reasonable accomodation. What would be more likely to lower morale and productivity is setting the precident that sleeping on the job is ever acceptable, or by sending the percieved message that “If I get “injured” I can get paid to sleep like Christina does.”

  7. @ Heidi Brightly…
    No one is condoning sleeping on the job, but you have to admit that it does seem that the punishment did not fit the crime here from what information we are being told here… was this a first offense or a repeat offense? Did this employee have a history of bad behavior, claims of work related injuries, etc?
    If this was a first time occurence it seems to me that this termination was either a “knee jerk reaction” or someone making this employee an example for the rest of the employees.
    What ever happened to the punishment fitting the offense?
    And one more thing, no one here has said that light duty should be preferential to regular job duties but if an employee gets hurt doing their daily job the employer needs to investigate whether the work being done is inherently hazardous or if the employee performed their work in an unsafe manner. Either way you are coming across as someone who is seeing it all in black and white terms… very harsh and someone whom I would not wish to work for.
    @ Coach…
    Being a person who suffers from Acute Severe Sleep Apnea, I have to agree with you. Sleep Apnea is a condition that can cause anyone to fall asleep at the worst times… Heck I used to doze off at a traffic light waiting for it to turn green so I can definetley relate to issue of being able to perform ny duties because of it. But thanks to having an understandable employer, I was able to get diagnosed and treated for this condition and am happy to say that my employer was very understanding about it and even went so far as to allow me to go home to try and rest while I was dealing with this. The punishment SHOULD fit the crime, not have everyone worry that a slight mishap or infraction will put you on the Unemployement line…

  8. @ Ryan…

    If she was given a warning as opposed to being terminated then there would have been no reason to even go to court. Again we do not have all the facts here and should not rush to judgement against the comapny or the employee, if this was a first time work related injury and infraction of dozing on the job due to this injury it could have been caused by medications she was taking for this injury or that maybe she was having difficulty sleeping due to this. I had a back injury that made it almost impossible for me to sleep and that lasted 4 weeks… And my boss was understanding of it. Maybe I just have a great employer who actually cares about their employees…?!

    Oh and maybe the reason that employees look at light duty as a reward is because they are not very good employees? I know that the people I work with a grateful for being able to do ANY work at all when they get hurt as opposed to having the doctor rule that they have to go back to work when they still feel unfit to do their regular job or they will lose their pay….

  9. @Coach
    How would the possibility of this employee being a nurse taking care of your relative change your response?
    Too many possible scenarios are available, not one of them capable of tolerating sleeping on the job.

  10. She did not claim any kind of sleeping disorder otherwise the courts would have taken it into consideration. The tedious nature of the job should not be a consideration either, if sleeping is prohibited then she broke the rules. It does not appear that the employer was not consistent with their discplinary action with a violation of the same rule and that is a problem. As an employer you need to have a clear set of consequences for policy violations.

  11. @ David…

    I think you are missing the point that Coach is trying to make.

    Look at it from a ” varying shades of gray” position… There has to be tempering as to the punishment given for somethings… You cannot expect employees to be happy to come to work in a place where they will be fired for the first little infraction. Discipline has to be doled out in steps that lead up to termination or you will never gain the respect and loyalty based on heavy handed ruling.

  12. To gain respect and loyalty I agree you can’t be heavy handed but people also respect fair and consistent treatment. In the industry I work in if rules like this are broken it can easily lead to someone getting injured or damage to the environment. In this situation the employee sleeping on the job would not have resulted in anything this serious but the punishment should be consistent with the policy. Being late is little infraction, sleeping on the job is not. In most industries it is considered a major violation and often warrants termination.

  13. Ok, this is my last comment on this subject….


    Here is a caption from the story that I feel says allot about Bemis…

    “She also claimed that others at Bemis hadn’t received the same punishment for sleeping on the job.
    Bemis’ Human Resources Manager testified about the differences between the various cases of sleeping on the job.”

    Is it just me or did this story actually just say that Bemis’ HR Manager testified about the “DIFFERENCES between the various cases of SLEEPING ON THE JOB”…??!!

    So to me that means that this woman was apparently singled out for termination to teach the other employees a lesson about what happens if you get caught sleeping on the job, yet it seems that others may have gotten a lesser form of punishment for the “same” actions… Hmmm… sounds fishy to me.

  14. Joe – “Punishment fit the crime” Really, suffering an injury at work is a crime? Workers comp is a safety net for both employee and employer. The article also referred to other employees sleeping, but did not state they were terminated. This really looks like retribution, unless there are facts other than the article mentions.

  15. @ Roberta…

    I NEVER said that suffering an injury at work was a “crime”…

    I do realize that WC is a safety net for both the employee and employer, but as I had stated before (and you apparently agree with) was that it seems as if this woman was singled out considering the “other cases of employees falling asleep on the job” and the differences between the various cases… uneven standards of punishment here is what I see which is not standardized as everyone seems to feel it should be no matter what the circumstances leading up to the falling asleep issue….

    As I said before, it sounds very fishy to me….

  16. I never knew there was different kinds a sleep. Sleeping on the job is sleeping on the job. They fired her for it so anyone caught sleeping should be fired. The story indicated that she may have fallen asleep for 5 minutes. It also indicates that the safety specialist was able to record her and snap pictures within that 5 minutes. Does this guy carry around all that equipment with him where ever he goes? Was the camera hidden and the company paid this guy to spy on her? I mean how could this guy secretly video record her and snap pictures (including getting all his equipment ready and time the incident) all within the five minutes? Something isn’t right. She must have been set up. And fired for it while others are not is absurb. Does this company set up cameras in the bathrooms in hope to catch someone sleeping on the toilet? She may have a criminal case against the company for video taping her and taking pictures of her without her permisssion. Invasion of privacy or something. I’m glad I don’t work for a company like that and as the safety director for my company I would have simply woke her up. There is no safety hazard in sitting at a table and flipping through plastic bags.
    As for the questions at the end of the comment; We ahve never had an instance of an employee falling asleep. Any light duty work should motivate injured employees to get back on with their lives regardless of what it is. Unless they are a slacker and want a free ride in life in which to me she wasn’t on of those.

  17. @Coach
    Fortunately I worked for a company that handle sleeping on the job according to your statements. We have operators with sleep apnea and narcolepsy. They are great employees with health issues and I am glad they are still with us. On the other hand, their functions will not endanger others.
    This case -to me, has different angles from the employee and employer perspective. Sometimes one stupid mistake can produce consequences such as losing a job. Maybe she was indeed singled out, maybe there were performance issues prior to the offense.
    One thing I know, she will not be sleeping again at the next job.

  18. @WILLY It could easily have been done in 5 minutes, I am issued a company cell phone that takes pictures and videos and am required to carry it with me at all times. There are not many in management these days that do not have a device capable of taking pics or videos strapped to their belt. There is no need to set anyone up to snap a pic these days. To the criminal case against the employer, I doubt it. Most employers make employees sign a survellance consent at hire these days due to video security, but even if not I don’t believe there is a law against catching someone in a photo alone, now if they had set them up in the bathroom as you suggested she might have a case for sexual misconduct/harrassment or the like.

  19. David, I never thought about a cell phone. But can a cell phone record a video for 5 minutes? I do not know of any that’s why I’m asking. And David, I hope your not one of those people who would do such a thing to cause a hardship for someone else rather than simply letting them know about their wrong doing so that they may have a chance to correct themselves. Afterall this may have been a one time thing.
    Good point about the cell phone though.

  20. I know nothing about this case but I have worked in Human Resources for many years.

    When I read the article I noticed this quote:
    “She also claimed that others at Bemis hadn’t received the same punishment for sleeping on the job.
    Bemis’ Human Resources Manager testified about the differences between the various cases of sleeping on the job.”

    I will approach this other than negatively and say that this would show me the company did examine all causes. Maybe the differences discussed were due to various medical reasons or reasons beyond the employees control. I read that statement and think that the employer gave the courts all of the information needed to prove beyond reasonable doubt the firing was fair and just.

    Just my thoughts on everything.

  21. What if employee feel asleep on light duty because they’re suffering from sleeplessness due to the injury they received (can’t sleep at night because of pain, experiencing insomnia as a symptom of their injury, etc.)?

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