Congress tackles equity for women

At a packed congressional hearing, witnesses poured out stories of women shut out of pension plans. Vonda Castillo of Anaheim, Calif., said her husband worked 29 years for a California aerospace company. His pension plan guaranteed payments to his wife if she outlived him - but only if he lived until the retirement age of 55.

As it turned out, he died 13 days before turning 55. His widow lost all survivor benefits.

Millicent P. Goode of Baltimore had been a homemaker for 30 years, raising four children. Her husband then divorced her and married a younger woman. Although the divorce court granted her a share of her husband's pension, the steel company where he had worked refused to make the payments to her.

Of the nation's working women, now numbering 43 million, only about 21 percent are covered by employer pension plans - about half the rate for men. And that fact contributes to the poverty of older women, whose incomes average about

Such problems, examined last week in the House Select Committee on Aging, have moved closer to the front burner as Congress, spurred partly by growing evidence of the voting power of women, deals with the Women's Economic Equity Act.

Introduced with some flourish earlier this year, the legislative package ranges from pension reform to child-support enforcement and elimination of sex discrimination in insurance. Many of the proposals have been knocking about Congress since the 1970s, but this year they are moving at a faster pace.

Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas this week opens hearings that will be a showcase for the Women's Economic Equity Act. At the same time, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee will hear testimony on his own bill to make pensions more available to women.

Supporters of the bills generally are pleased that the bills appear to be moving, and several see the finance committee hearing as a major step. But they already see a large obstacle in front of one of the most important sections of the act: insurance reform.

Just as the reformers finally gathered strength, the insurance industry has launched an all-out effort to defend its custom of setting rates and benefits partly on the basis of sex.

Full-page newspaper ads and mail campaigns brought hundreds of letters into some congressional offices and frightened away some of the backers. ''It was like an ambush before the hearings even were held'' on the issue, says Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, Democratic cochair of the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues.

''It has taken a phenomenal amount of energy to try to put out all these fires'' on the insurance issue, she says, adding that the mail is ''still pouring in and people are still nervous.''

At the heart of the dispute is whether customers pay fair rates now. The question as to who really wins or loses should be answered by a study by the US General Accounting Office due later this summer. A number of lawmakers say they are waiting to see the GAO figures before they decide whether to back the ban on sex discrimination in insurance.

Meanwhile, congressmen in both parties are trying to nudge their leaders to make the Women's Economic Equity Act a priority.

Republican proponents are expressing impatience that the White House has not yet taken a stand.

''I'd be more encouraged if the administration would back it,'' Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, a chief GOP sponsor, said last week when asked about prospects for the equity package.

Rep. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, the Republican cochair of the women's issues caucus, went with other GOP women lawmakers to the White House earlier this year to seek the President's support. ''He said he would get back to us,'' she said last week. But so far he has not.

Congresswoman Snowe said she wrote three weeks ago to presidential counselor Edwin Meese III urging action, but he had not yet responded. ''We're missing a lot of opportunities'' for moving out front on women's issues, she said. ''The longer they wait, the more questions are raised.''

Democratic supporters of the equity package also are keeping the pressure on their party. Democratic congresswomen met last week with middle-level leaders in the House to tell them, according to Representative Schroeder, that ''this cannot get hung up.''

''I'm optimistic,'' she said. ''But the question is how much, how fast.''

Next: The ''gender gap'' and the 1984 elections.

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