Woman fired for taking care of dying mother-in-law in violation of company policy

For 13 years, Ivania Centeno was a loyal employee working for Bon Appetit at one of the cafes at the Genentech campus in South San Francisco, until she was abruptly fired.

The reason for the termination was because she left for a couple of weeks to care for her dying mother-in-law, which is something Bon Appetit claimed she didn’t have permission to do because it was in violation of the company’s family leave policy. What complicates things is she said she told her supervisor who initially allowed her to take a trip to Nicaragua to care for her.

Centeno has since sued Bon Appetit for wrongful termination and has been fighting for more than a year for a resolution.

“I think maybe they should be more compassionate to workers,” she said. “To me, I think it’s wrong. It’s a family.”

There are limits in the law surrounding family leave, including a loophole discovered by 2 Investigates that creates a gray area and requires legislative changes to fix.  Under California’s paid leave law, care of in-laws is covered, however, under the California Family Rights Act, care of in-laws is not covered. It’s not clear which law takes precedent.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Joan Williams, director of the Center for Work Life Law, said. “This is not a lot of money and the downside is looking quite heartless.”

Williams, who’s also a law professor at UC Hastings, said before the 1990s, mothers were often discriminated against for childcare responsibilities until the laws were changed. She said this is a new kind of employee discrimination against those who care of sick or elderly parents and is becoming increasingly common.

“This is a pattern unfortunately that we often see,” Williams said. “I think there’s going to be another push this year for exactly this legislation.”

Williams said legislation to close the loophole not covering in-laws passed last year, however, it was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown.

In Centeno’s case, she felt Bon Appetit was looking to fire her for some time, after she got sick and then got into a car accident, causing her to take time off in order to attend medical appointments.

“It made you feel like they really wanted to get rid of me,” she said. “They were just waiting for something.”

That something, according to Centeno, was when her mother-in-law became deathly ill. She said she told her boss who gave her permission. Her mother-in-law did pass away and she stayed to attend the funeral in Nicaragua.

Centeno’s lawyer claimed Bon Appetit has a culture of intolerance for employee illnesses and even grades them annually on how often they’re sick. In this case, attorney Rob Nelson explained Centeno qualified to take vacation time, personal time or bereavement time to cover her absences but the company still pushed forward with the termination process.

“You’re still free to have a heart and behave like a human being and allow them to take the time off if it’s a compelling situation such as this one,” Nelson said.

Nelson explained that Bon Appetit blamed the firing decision on computer software and the circumstances of Centeno’s trip were entered and the system concluded she had to be fired. 

“I don’t see how human resources without the human part of it is going to work,” Nelson said. “Even assuming this computer system did make the decision to fire her…it did it in a way that just looks terrible and it looks discriminatory.”

Emails mentioned in the deposition, were evidence in the case and showed a Bon Appetit manager explained she had gone out of the country for a family emergency and confirmed she was caring for a family member. It was only after that when she was told that in-laws don’t qualify for family leave and then she was fired.

2 Investigates requested interviews and answers to the lawsuit from Bon Appetit but heard nothing back and decided to show up to the corporate office in Palo Alto.

“I’m not going to discuss it,” a woman said to 2 Investigates. “Our attorneys are dealing with it.”

After the visit by 2 Investigates, Bon Appetit suddenly budged and days before the trial, the case was resolved. She had spent more than a year fighting her former employer. In the end, the mother of four is happy to have a new job and satisfied with the settlement.

“I support my family and my country too,” Centeno said. “I have a lot of relatives and they depend on me. One of them was my mother-in-law.”