When Dickey Elementary School in the central Pennsylvania town of Lock Haven went virtual last March, MaryJo Delaney had a problem. She had a 9-year-old son. She had a job in a warehouse managing the repackaging of wholesale goods. She had no child care.

It was a relief when her boss offered employees a temporary layoff. But a few months later, he called her back — and with schools still closed, she asked for reduced hours.

According to a lawsuit her lawyer later filed in federal court, her boss said no, cursed at her, and threatened to demote her if she took leave under a new federal law designed to protect parents during the pandemic.

“I just knew it wasn’t right,” said Delaney, 37.

Across the region and country during the pandemic, employment lawyers have reported a surge in calls from mothers who have been reprimanded, demoted, or fired because they had to care for children during school and day-care closures.

A dedicated pandemic hotline at the Center for WorkLife Law, a national research and advocacy organization, received almost seven times its usual number of inquiries, said Cynthia Calvert, a senior adviser to the group.

“It’s close to impossible” for many parents to work and also care for young children, said Philadelphia employment lawyer David Koller, who represents Delaney.

Since the start of the pandemic, more than a million mothers have left the workforce. About 12% of currently unemployed men and 32% of currently unemployed women ages 25 to 44 said child care was the reason for their unemployment, according to the Census Bureau.

“The problem is so often that when women leave the workforce, it’s impossible to get back in,” said Sherry Leiwant, co-president of A Better Balance, a national organization that advocates for family-friendly employment policies. “I think we are talking about a generation of women,” she said, who may face reentry problems.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which Congress passed in March, requires employers to grant employees paid sick leave and paid leave to care for children whose schools closed because of the pandemic. But it expired at the end of 2020, and many workers never knew it existed.

“It’s just words on paper if you don’t raise it as an issue and say, ‘This is my right,’” said Koller, Delaney’s lawyer.

He said that it may be especially hard for employees at smaller companies to assert that right — when the supervisor is the owner and the HR adjudicator.

President Joe Biden proposed extending the paid caregivers’ leave, as well as paid sick leave. But the American Rescue Plan that passed Thursday did neither — except for federal workers.

“There’s a problem with our infrastructure, of not having paid leave, of not having ways for people with families to care for their families and still stay connected to the workforce,” said Leiwant. “It’s really laying bare in a lot of ways what we need to do going forward as a country.”

Delaney had started the pandemic feeling optimistic about her $17-an-hour job. She and her husband, Brian, worked for the same company, Advantage Sales Ltd. Brian Delaney had known the president and owner, Micah Clausen, since he was 17, and they sold fireworks together out of the back of a pickup truck, he said.

Clausen and his lawyer did not respond to multiple requests by phone and email from The Inquirer to share Clausen’s side of the story, or to a detailed email sent to the lawyer asking for comment on each of Delaney’s claims.

In his 10-page response to Delaney’s lawsuit, Clausen suggested that her performance was poor and said he did not retaliate against her. He suggested she was not demoted because of her request for leave. The next step in the lawsuit is a preliminary conference before the judge. A hearing or trial could take a year, and if Clausen and Advantage Sales are found to have violated the Families First law, they could have to pay Delaney damages.

Delaney had always put work first, she said. When she realized at age 19 she couldn’t attend college and work full-time, she left college — she needed that pharmacy job to support herself. About a decade later, as a new single parent, she left her 6-week-old son with her roommate each day from 4 p.m. to midnight, she said, to resume work as an assistant manager at Wendy’s.

Last spring, Advantage Sales — which repackages items such as hair ties, Christmas ornaments, blankets, and jerky for sale on Amazon and to other buyers — was classified as essential and able to operate despite statewide closures. Delaney and her husband both took the voluntary layoff.

They had two children at home: 9-year-old Xzavier Haroulakis, Delaney’s son from a previous relationship, and 13-year-old Brooklynn, Brian’s daughter from a previous marriage, who had lived with her mother but stayed with Brian and Delaney from the start of the pandemic.

Brooklynn was depressed. Xzavier’s struggles with reading made virtual school a challenge. “He focuses so hard on reading the words correctly that by the time he finishes reading the sentence, he may not understand what he just read,” said Delaney — a problem when the teacher emailed instructions. Delaney sat beside him at the dining-room table and guided him through assignments.

“There would be tears,” she said. “One of us would walk out of the room for a minute just to catch a breath.”

After school, Delaney would reteach the day’s lessons, supervise extra sessions with Xzavier’s special reading teacher, and attend parent sessions with the classroom teacher.

On May 18, when Clausen called employees back to work, Delaney and her husband left the kids home alone.

That day, Delaney said she told Clausen her son’s school was still closed and asked to work reduced hours, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., for several weeks until the end of the school year. She said she could use vacation time to make up the hours, or else take leave through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Williamsport.

Clausen said her proposed schedule would not work, Delaney said.

“You’re smart and creative,” Delaney said Clausen told her. “Figure it out.” He said if she took leave, she would be demoted when she returned to work, she said in the complaint.

At work, Delaney felt that Clausen suddenly seemed hostile; she said he corrected her, timed her work, and reviewed video of her working, finding fault with her.

A few weeks later, Clausen demoted her from manager to a member of the crew she had supervised since 2014. He said that after a month, if her productivity did not improve, she would be fired.

She quit instead.

Her identity had been bound up in being a valued employee and competent manager, she said, and when she left her job, she struggled to rebuild her sense of self-worth.

“I felt like I had no value,” she said. “It left me in a position to try to understand who and what I am.”

“He needs to be aware and anybody else needs to be aware: You can’t do this to families.”

The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.