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US women make significant headway in pay-equity drive

Debbie Margatega of Seattle is expecting a little something extra in her paycheck come spring. She is one of 35,000 workers, most of them women, to benefit from a hard-fought settlement with Washington state designed to end sex-based wage discrimination. Carmen Hayes, a clerk-typist for Los Angeles, is reaping almost $200 more a month after her union negotiated a pay-equity settlement with the city last year.

They were among some 350 members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees here over the weekend for the union's regional conference for women. Half of AFSCME's 1.1 million members are women, and the union has been in the forefront of the fight to achieve pay equity through the concept of comparable worth.

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The focus of much controversy, comparable worth goes beyond the idea that women should receive equal pay for equal work. It asserts that women should receive equal pay for work of equal value.

States and cities in increasing numbers are in some way addressing the concept, say union leaders here. Since the early 1980s, when comparable worth surfaced as an important issue, ``more than $200 million has been added to people's pockets'' as a result of settlements, says Marilyn DePoy, AFSCME's women's rights coordinator. But municipal and state officials often point out that comparable-worth agreements strain already tight budgets.

Jobs that once were considered ``women's work'' -- clerks, teachers, nurses, and librarians -- have long been undervalued, say comparable-worth advocates. Los Angeles, for example, previously paid its entry-level clerk-typists about 15 percent less than entry-level warehouse workers, even though both jobs accepted high school graduates with no work experience.

Comparable worth has met stiff resistance in the private sector and from the Reagan administration.

Arguing that market forces should determine what jobs are worth, opponents say that women earn less because, in general, they don't stay in the work force as long as men do; that women have fewer years of schooling, less experience, and lower job skills; and that it is too difficult to establish the comparable worth of various jobs.

Nevertheless, four states -- Minnesota, Iowa, New Mexico, and Washington -- have moved to eliminate wage gaps between female-dominated jobs and comparable male-dominated jobs. Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco also have recently announced settlements that include special pay hikes in job classifications that are filled primarily by women.

AFSCME says it intends to press ahead on pay equity, even though many states and cities will be financially strapped if they bear the brunt of federal budget cuts under Gramm-Rudman.

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The pursuit of comparable worth ``is not a question of [a state's or city's] ability to pay, but of correcting past discrimination,'' says William Lucy, secretary-treasurer of AFSCME International. Cost cannot be a defense against ending sex-based wage inequities, he argues.

However, the cost will probably be more digestible to employers if settlements are reached through negotiation and bargaining, rather than through the courts, Mr. Lucy says.

In the most significant court case to date, AFSCME v. the State of Washington, a federal district judge awarded immediate wage corrections to employees in female-dominated jobs and back pay dating from September 1979.

Although the decision was later overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, at least 22 states moved to head off such prohibitive costs by working out agreements with unions or by initiating studies to determine the extent of sex-based wage discrimination among public employees.

The hope is that comparable-worth agreements in the public sector will be the catalyst for change in the private sector, says Diana Rock, director of women's issues for AFSCME. ``Eventually, the private sector will have to pay more to compete for quality people attracted to the public sector,'' she says.

``When you don't have to work two jobs to pay the bills, when you don't have to worry about money for a new pair of shoes, you have more left for your children,'' says Betty Ballard, president of AFSCME Local 3090 in Los Angeles. ``It builds the family.'' Tomorrow: Comparable worth in the private sector. A look at New York University.

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