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West Coast suit prompts many employers to boost women's pay

Salaries for many working women are expected to improve as a result of a suit against Washington state. Both sides are awaiting a federal appeals court ruling in the case, which is expected to go all the way to the US Supreme Court.

In 1983, state employees won $800 million in back pay from the state after arguing that it discriminated against women by paying them less than men whose jobs were different than women's, but of equivalent skill and worth. It was the first ``comparable worth'' case in the nation to prove discrimination under the Civil Rights Act.

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The state doesn't dispute the inequities, which it discovered during evaluation studies it conducted in the 1970s. But the state argued last week before the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals that the institutional pay disparity doesn't constitute intentional discrimination.

If the state ultimately loses, the lower court ruling will have ``an unbelievable financial impact on every single public and private employer,'' explains Christine Gregoire, the deputy attorney general arguing the appeal for the state. She notes that Washington itself could have to sign checks for nearly $1 billion in back pay.

The Reagan administration has ardently opposed the comparable-worth concept. The US Civil Rights Commission, dominated by Reagan appointees, was expected to issue a report today that rejects the comparable worth concept.

Despite this opposition, the wider influence of the Washington case is already being felt.

``States are much more willing to bargain now'' over the comparable-worth issue, says Diana Rock, director of the women's rights program of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The union handled the Washington case on behalf of its members there. ``And employers who really want to fix it [discriminatory pay] are going ahead and doing studies,'' she says. She adds that this counters ``smoking gun'' arguments by opponents who claim that employers won't want to conduct studies if the consequences are civil rights suits like Washington's.

``Two-thirds of all employers do job evaluation surveys already,'' says Claudia Wayne, executive director of the National Committee on Pay Equity. The evaluations are typically point systems for measuring and comparing the skill, responsibility, and knowledge required in jobs of different character.

Increasing numbers of states and municipalities are acting on the findings of those studies, says Ms. Wayne. Five states have adopted pay equity programs, 20 states are evaluating jobs, and 13 have created commissions to study comparable worth.

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Minnesota has adopted the comparable-worth notion that the traditionally female-dominated, low-paying ``pink-collar'' jobs may be worth the same pay as male-dominated, higher paying jobs.

The state voluntarily adjusted pay when a job evaluation revealed male-female disparities, says Nina Rothchild, Minnesota commissioner of employee relations.

The state's effort to correct the situation has resulted in pay adjustments for current salaries and a lack of antagonism between labor unions and the state. So no suits to recover back pay have been filed. Further, the state has passed a law requiring local governments to institute comparable-worth adjustments.

Even Washington state, though embroiled in litigation over the intent of its pay disparities, has allotted $1.5 million to alleviate those disparities and is looking at adding $40 million more to its payroll budget for that purpose.

``A lot of states are looking at this, and they see it cost Washington 25 percent of its payroll budget'' and would have cost just 5 percent as in Minnesota, where the issue wasn't fought, says Ms. Wayne, who calls the comparable worth the pay issue of the '80s.

Still, the movement toward accepting the comparable-worth concept is hitting some snags.

Last week, a comparable-worth suit brought by the American Nurses Association against the state of Illinois was thrown out of federal court before any evidence was ever considered. ----30--{et

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