Should a city librarian, traditionally a woman, be paid the same wage as a department of public works engineer, traditionally a man? This November San Franciscans will vote whether City Hall should be allowed to erase any wage gaps that exist between city jobs that are female-dominated and comparable jobs that are male-dominated.
Although San Francisco will be first to put the concept of ``pay equity'' before the voters, it is not a leader on the issue. Other jurisdictions -- most notably the California cities of San Jose and Los Angeles, and the states of Minnesota and Washington -- have already boosted the paychecks of public employees who work in jobs that traditionally have been held by women.
The concept of pay equity, also called comparable worth, is a controversial one. Its premise is that jobs usually held by women, such as clerk typists, are often underpaid relative to other jobs that require comparable skill levels but are usually held by men, such as machine operators.
Supporters say pay equity is the best way to correct such wage discrepancies and to address sex discrimination that has become entrenched in the work place. Opponents say pay equity tampers with America's free-market system of setting wages and is unnecessary because sex-based wage discrimination is already illegal.
The National Committee on Pay Equity in Washington, however, says the concept is gaining credence. Twenty-six states are reexamining how they evaluate the job performance of their employees, says Claudia Wayne, executive director of the committee. In addition, 13 of those states have begun to implement pay equity, ``meaning they have put more money into the pockets of employees in female-dominated jobs,'' she says.
The San Francisco ballot measure avoids the highly charged labels of pay equity or comparable worth. Instead, it asks voters to amend the city charter to allow Mayor Dianne Feinstein and the Board of Supervisors to study pay rates for city jobs ``disproportionately occupied by minorities or women.''
The supervisors, with the mayor's consent, would be empowered to raise the pay rates for such jobs if they were found to be underpaid in comparison to male-dominated jobs that involve similar skill, responsibility, effort, and working conditions.
The measure, worked out earlier this month, ends six years of fighting between the unions and the city.
Mayor Feinstein had opposed previous pay-equity plans on grounds the city could not afford to implement them. The unions and several supervisors had been poised to sue her.
Polls conducted by both sides indicate pay equity has the support of a majority of San Franciscans, even if it costs the city money.
Supervisor Nancy Walker, a proponent of pay equity, says unofficial studies by minority and women's groups show sex- and race-based wage discrimination exists in city jobs.
``It's just there, and once you identify it you have to do something about it,'' Supervisor Walker says. In some cases, the wage discrepancy is as high as 40 percent, she says.
The state of California also has been grappling with the issue for at least five years -- but has ended up in court. The California State Employees Association (CSEA) two years ago sued the state on behalf of its public employees in female-dominated jobs.
The union charged California with violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. CSEA is still reviewing the state's wage records, and no trial date has been set.
To win the case, as well as any back pay for employees, CSEA must show that the state intentionally underpaid people in female-dominated jobs. Simply proving the existence of wage discrimination is not enough, according to an earlier court ruling in the celebrated case of AFSCME [American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees] v. State of Washington.
In that case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found Washington had not violated Title VII and was not liable for backpay. The state and the union, however, later negotiated a pay-equity settlement.
While pay equity has been advanced by public-employee unions and some state governments, it has come under attack by economists, some of whom argue that wages are not determined solely on the basis of workers' skill levels.
The availability of those skills in the labor market also influences pay rates, and women who want higher pay should attain skills that employers value the most, the economists contend.
Neither has the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) jumped on the pay-equity bandwagon.
In a 1981 report done for the commission, the academy concluded that it was not feasible to judiciously administer pay scales.
``Since then, the EEOC has declined to pursue that issue,'' says Jack Pemberton, regional attorney for the EEOC office in San Francisco.