6 min

Ivy Ennals had a stressful pregnancy. Then, a few days before her 40th birthday, her baby girl arrived via emergency C-section, setting Ennals up for a tough healing process.

Maternity leave was crucial: first, 12 weeks under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, then an additional six weeks provided as baby-bonding time under New Jersey’s family leave law.

But when Ennals went back to the Vineland, N.J., store where she worked as a manager, she found she no longer had a job.

Her employment at the retail store Gabe’s had been terminated the month before, she said she was told. She was shocked — and, with a new baby and two older children at home, suddenly out of work.

Nearly four years later, Ennals will receive a hefty payout from her ex-employer in what amounts to a settlement of a civil rights complaint she filed after the August 2019 termination, the New Jersey attorney general’s office announced this week.

“You don’t want it to ever happen again to anybody else when you go through something like this,” Ennals, 43, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Pregnancy or parental discrimination complaints by workers aren’t uncommon. New Jersey is among 13 states that have enacted paid family and medical leave laws since 2013, many of which have gone into effect in recent years or are set to go into effect soon, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. A new one was signed Thursday in Minnesota and another is under consideration in Maine.

The leave normally comes on top of what is provided by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, allowing new parents to extend their time at home before returning to work. The laws provide benefits and protection, but when employers violate the rules, it’s up to new parents to seek recourse.

“These types of laws are very, very important and crucial for employee rights,” said David Koller, Ennals’s attorney, “but the laws are only useful if people pursue their rights — if people are brave enough, like Ivy, to actually do something about it.”

Bills that would offer paid family leave on the federal level have stagnated in Congress, though some lawmakers have made a renewed push this year. Critics have questioned the financial effects, impact on employers and purported benefits.

In 2021, President Biden’s proposal for a 12-week program for paid family leave was eliminated from his sweeping spending package after opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who raised concerns about funding, the effect on small businesses and potential for fraud.

Advocates have zeroed in on state legislatures, pushing for paid-leave bills across the country. On Thursday, Minnesota became the 14th state to enact paid family and medical leave as Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed a new bill into law. At a news conference, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan (D) put on the lectern a framed photo of her daughter as a baby.

“This time is not optional. It’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have if we truly are going to be the best state in the country to raise a family,” she said. “And when you’re ready to come back, your job should still be there.”

In Ennals’s case, her former employer, Gabe’s, agreed to pay her $66,000 in compensation, along with $44,000 in attorney’s fees and $3,500 to the state, for a total of $113,500, New Jersey Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin’s office said in a news release.

Gabe’s denied any violation of the law, according to the consent order in the case, and the agreement resolved the complaint. Gabe’s also agreed to provide training on state policy for employees who process leave requests.

“Due to confidentiality, legally we cannot comment on this case. Since the incident four years ago, we have made numerous and substantial companywide changes that positively impact our associates,” Jeffry Bruce, Gabe’s chief executive human resources officer, said in an email to The Washington Post.

Ennals, of Port Norris, N.J., said the job loss had a profound financial effect on her family. It took her several months to find a new job, and when she did, it paid less than she’d made at Gabe’s. She kept job-hunting until she found something “comfortable,” while her husband worked overtime.

“I was already stressed by having that emergency surgery with her, healing time was already a little prolonged, and bills were getting a little behind,” Ennals recalled. “It just puts you in a whole bind.”

After contacting a lawyer, she filed a complaint with the New Jersey attorney general’s office’s civil rights division, which investigates claims under the state’s leave law. That complaint resulted in the consent agreement announced this week.

“It’s always gratifying to see when a state actually stands up for its laws and for its workers and gets a settlement like [this] one,” said Sherry Leiwant, co-president of the advocacy group A Better Balance, which pushes for policies including paid leave, paid sick time and pregnancy accommodations. “That does send a message.”

Platkin, the attorney general, also announced an agreement resolving another complaint by a man who said he was terminated by his employer after requesting leave before the birth of his child.

“The New Jersey Family Leave Act protects a parent’s right to take time away from work to bond with their child without fear of losing their job,” Platkin said in a statement. “New Jersey employers should know that we will not tolerate violations of that important law.”

Complaints like Ennals’s are common, said Koller and Leiwant, whose organization runs a helpline that takes calls from parents. Parents who experience issues taking leave can contact a lawyer or, often, can call a state hotline.

Losing a job at the end of parental leave can push some people into poverty, Leiwant said, particularly in cases when a family has already drained their savings to take time off work. Often, people who lose their jobs are hourly or low-wage workers.

Advocates pushing for paid parental leave in statehouses and in Congress say job protection must be included in those laws.

“That is just as critical for workers; in many ways, it’s as important as the money,” Leiwant said. “The pressure on you, when you’ve just had a child, of possibly losing your job is just something that women shouldn’t have to face, and that kind of stress is definitely a factor in this country’s poor record on maternal health.”