Nearly 10 years ago, then Gov. Dan Evans made a portentous decision that has come back to trouble the state of Washington. Prodded in part by the Washington Federation of State Employees, Governor Evans in 1974 ordered a study of the pay scales of the state's female employees compared with male employees.
The study concluded that women doing work of ''comparable worth'' were paid about 20 percent less than men. In his last year in office, Evans requested that the Legislature appropriate $7 million to begin closing this gap.
Successive governors and legislatures, however, more or less shelved the notion of comparable worth. But this fall, the issue came back with a vengeance when a federal judge in Tacoma ruled the state has been practicing sex discrimination.
Judge Jack Tanner ruled Sept. 16 that the state had violated Section 7 of the United States Civil Rights Act because it pays less money to women than to men doing comparable work.
And this month Judge Tanner ordered the state to take immediate steps to raise the salaries of 15,000 female employees retroactive to September 1979.
The suit, the first in the nation on the so-called comparable-worth issue, could cost Washington as much as $1 billion in pay raises and back pay - more than 10 percent of the entire state budget.
In making its suit, the state employee union alleged that women were underpaid an average of 31 percent. It said the state of Washington had not shown good faith in trying to bridge that gap since the original study in 1974.
Judge Tanner ruled favorably on the union's contentions and ordered back pay (retroactive to two years before the union filed its official complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission).
State officials assert that such a settlement will cost about $196 million in immediate pay raises and $624 million in back pay, and will require draconian tax increases that could hurt the state's delicate economic recovery.
When officials raised these questions in court, however, Judge Tanner cut them off with a curt, ''I don't want to hear about economics.''
Union officials claim these figures are overstated, worst-case numbers designed to scare the public. But they scoff at the $1.5 million the Legislature finally appropriated in 1983, saying that at that rate it would take nearly a century for Washington to bring its salaries of female employees up to par with men.
Comparable worth goes beyond just granting equal pay for equal work. It grants equal pay for equivalentwork where, say, the skills of an assistant librarian are compared with skills of a journeyman carpenter.
There are several consulting firms across the country that do these kinds of studies. The Seattle firm of Norman D. Willis & Association, which did the 1974 study for Washington, uses a point system that weighs such factors as knowledge and skills required of the job, freedom to take action, working conditions, among others.