Comparable worth: the equal-pay issue of the '80s

In Montgomery County, Md., a teacher entering the system for the first time with a bachelor's degree receives a starting salary of $13,253. A liquor store clerk with no college education in the same county starts at $14,731.

Apples and oranges, or plain inequities? That's the question behind the ''comparable worth'' concept that is said to be the equal-employment issue of the 1980s. The idea that employees should be paid for work that is not exactly equal, but comparable in worth, has been around the courts and bargaining tables since the late 1960s. But last summer the Supreme Court gave a cautious, limited go-ahead to a case which some say set a precedent for using Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in ''comparable worth'' cases, and the issue began to snowball. A landmark case

That case, Gunther v. County of Washington, was a classic: Matrons at an Oregon prison argued that, although they had fewer inmates to guard and more clerical work to do, they were doing work comparable to that of male deputy sheriffs who guarded males within the state system. The court described the case as having proved, ''by direct evidence, that wages were depressed because of intentional sex-discrimination, consisting of setting the wage scale for female guards, but not for male guards, at a level lower than its own survey of outside markets and the worth of the jobs warranted.''

A key piece of evidence in the case was an outside job evaluation, which showed the women doing 95 percent of what the men were doing, while each woman received $200 less a month than her male counterpart. Job evaluations like this one are the main bone of contention between advocates and opponents of comparable worth, with opponents believing that worth should be determined by the marketplace (or prevailing wage scales) and advocates wanting a systematic comparison of skills, education, experience, and responsibility for each job.

Although methods for evaluating jobs may vary from company to company and from situation to situation, the determination of salaries tends to fall into these same categories. Last November, for example, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors established a policy of pay for city employees, saying that the city charter requires jobs to be paid at prevailing wage scales, according to Virginia Haggard Dean, co-coordinator of the Comparable Worth Project in Oakland , Calif. Salaries based on current wage scales

Her organization maintains that job evaluations based on current wage scales almost always discriminate against women, ''since women and women's occupations were paid less as a matter of policy before Congress passed the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made sex and race discrimination in wages illegal. Prevailing wage systems perpetuate this historic bias.''

But Joy Ann Grune, executive director of the National Committee on Pay Equity in Washington, D.C., says some of the job evaluations that look at skills, experience, and responsibility still tend to undervalue women's work. ''They leave out factors in female jobs like the manual dexterity required for assembling certain items,'' she says. ''Or they assume that because a woman heads up a pool of clerk typist, she has less responsibility than someone who heads up a group of messengers.''

She observes some companies have ''different standards of evaluation for blue collar, white collar, and clerical workers. And then some firms will hire an outside evaluator, discover they have been consistently paying women less than men, and then decide to ignore the findings because they think it's too expensive to upgrade women's pay.'' The high cost of equal treatment

The high cost of equal treatment is often cited by opponents of the comparable-worth idea who believe its application across the job market would be devastating to the economy. Michael Connolly, the new general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission - the government agency primarily responsible for moving the Gunther case to the Supreme Court under the last administration - is one of these.

He cites a 1978 EEOC study that says it would cost civilian employers $150 billion a year to raise women's pay to parity men's. ''If the comparable-worth can of worms gets opened in the country, and the law of supply and demand and the free market doesn't apply,'' he says, ''it will be doing a great disservice to females and minorities and the country.''

Big industry, faced with overregulation and spiraling labor costs, will take their companies to cheap labor markets overseas, Mr. Connolly says, while the increases in pay will have a ''significant inflationary effect. The trick in supply-side civil rights, like supply-side economics,'' he says, is not to give any group a larger piece of the same economic pie, ''but to make the pie larger.''

''We need women and minorities in the work force,'' he says, pointing out that the baby-boom employees who have taken jobs at the starting end of the pay scale are now moving up through that scale, and others must be found to take lower-paying jobs.

The EEOC will continue to work ''vigorously to enforce the (1963) Equal Pay Act and Title VII,'' Mr. Connolly says, referring to the two pieces of federal legislation commonly used in equal-pay court cases, ''particularly in cases where upward mobility is being threatened.''

The upward mobility Mr. Connolly's commission promises to uphold is seen as the cure for anyone's low wages by a corporate lobbying group called the Equal Employment Advisory Council (EEAC), which has published a book arguing against the concept of comparable worth. With access to all types of employment opening up, it sees a woman's decision to stay in a low-paying, traditional female job is ''a matter of choice,'' says one of the organization's lawyers. ''She could always change jobs.'' 'Profit and prejudice'

Advocates of comparable worth, on the other hand, place much of the blame squarely on discrimination. ''There are two main reasons this practice (of assigning lower wages to jobs traditionally held by females) exists - profit and prejudice,'' says Day Creamer, executive director of Women Employed in Chicago.

Organizations like hers, in partnership with many unions, are working through collective bargaining as well as the courts and state and local legislative bodies across the country to establish laws and legal precedents for this concept.

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