Boston — A landmark case that deals with the issue of ``equal pay for equal work,'' called comparable worth, is likely to go all the way to the Supreme Court. Supporters of comparable worth received a sharp setback Wednesday when a federal court in Washington State overturned a lower court ruling.
The first ruling held the state liable for $1 billion in back-pay damages to 15,500 state workers after a survey found that female workers earned 20 percent less than their male counterparts in jobs that required similar skills and mental demands.
If the Supreme Court views the highly controversial issue as sex discrimination, then the comparable-worth claim is likely to survive. In past rulings, the Court has taken a tough stance against sex discrimination. However, if it views this case as an affirmative-action issue, comparable worth may not survive. The Supreme Court's recent track record in affirmative-action cases suggests that it would uphold the latest state ruling.
However, a three-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday that employers may use the prevailing market condition in setting wages and need not rely on comparable-worth surveys. A US Supreme Court test is almost certain. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which brought the suit in Washington, said yesterday it will appeal the latest ruling.
The concept of comparable worth is that men and women whose jobs make equivalent demands on them should be considered of comparable worth to their employers and should therefore receive equal pay. The idea has been disputed for several years in the courts, in state legislatures, in Congress, and among labor and civil rights groups.
Forty states have debated the issue. Some have supported laws against wage discrimination in the work place. The issue has been important in several labor disputes, including last year's strike by Yale University office workers and a municipal employee walkout in San Jose, Calif.
Among the dozen or so lawsuits over comparable worth are those involving pay for nurses in Illinois, public employees in Hawaii, and California workers in predominately female-occupied jobs.
The Reagan administration strongly opposes the idea and recently filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the State of Illinois in the nurses suit. And the Justice Department holds that Congress never intended to give judges the authority to decide the relative value of people's jobs.
A Supreme Court appeal would almost certainly bring similar White House support to the State of Washington's case against the equal pay, equal work concept.
Based on past decisions, the high court tends to protect valid claims of discrimination against individuals -- including women -- but has rebuffed so-called group affirmative-action thrusts.
For example, last year the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that law firms may not discriminate on the basis of sex, race, religion, or national origin in deciding partnership promotions.
However, in several cases involving police and firefighters, the Court has invalidated state rulings that give minority workers preference over whites who have more tenure, and struck down quota systems aimed at bringing more blacks, Hispanics, and women into the work force.
The US Justice Department has repeatedly promoted an antidiscrimination policy based on addressing individual grievances but rejecting consideration of group grievances.
Until the time that it entered the Illinois suit, the Justice Department had not taken an active stance against comparable worth. Other federal agencies had. For example, Clarence Pendleton, chairman of the US Commission on Civil Rights has called the concept a ``looney'' idea, designating it a scheme ``to redistribute income.''