N.Y.C. Joins Fight to Equalize The Cost of a Clean Shirt

'Gender pricing' bill goes to mayor in latest bid to halt price discrimination.

Peggy Becker and her husband, Rob, both bought suits at Saks Fifth Avenue. Ms. Becker paid $40 to $50 for alterations, while her husband's suit was tailored for free.

"That's sort of unfair," says Ms. Becker, a lawyer. But Saks argues it needs to charge for the service.

"The truth is it does cost more for women," says Eilene Isaacs, director of alterations for Saks.

The debate is part of the fabric of new laws that prohibit "gender-based pricing," by which women pay more than men do for the same services, such as haircuts or dry cleaning. Over the next few years, it is likely to intensify as more states move to enact "gender pricing equity" laws or to try cases under current antidiscrimination statutes.

This week, the New York City Council sent gender-pricing legislation to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. If he signs the bill, the city will join the states of California and Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, and some Virginia counties in pushing gender-based pricing equity.

"There is a growing consensus that basing prices upon gender is wrong and illegal and that increasingly it will fall, either under existing sex-discrimination suits or new ones as they may be passed," says John Banzhaf, a law professor at The George Washington University Law School in Washington.

To date, however, the number of cases is scant. In California, for example, only 122 cases have been filed in the past year with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, charged with implementing the statute. The department has yet to litigate any of the complaints. "Generally, we will settle first," says Debrah Zeh, an administrator for the agency.

California allows merchants to charge higher rates to one of the sexes if they can prove the costs are justified. The District of Columbia, meanwhile, ruled out the cost-basis defense in its law. As a result, Professor Banzhaf's students filed several complaints against dry-cleaning establishments and bars that offered women half-price drinks on certain nights. The idea has spread: Banzhaf says half the states have now banned ladies' nights at bars because they discriminate against men.

MERCHANTS here are already bristling over the city council's action. Bill Seitz of the Neighborhood Cleaners Association, International, which has about 4,000 members, calls the legislation "totally unnecessary."

He says the price difference between a woman's blouse and a man's shirt has to do with the time it takes to press them. Most men's shirts fit on a standard pressing machine. But, he says, many women's blouses are too small or have a lot of handwork. Even so, he says, "We are educating our members and urging them not to make a distinction, but we can't urge the same price if it takes twice as much work."

Saks's Ms. Isaacs, who has consulted for major retailers on equitable-pricing issues, says there are major differences in the way women's and men's clothing are made. A man's waistband usually has two inches of extra fabric so it can be easily let out. But women's pants are made without the extra material. "We would love it if the waistbands are constructed the same, but women are more fashion-sensitive and you can't alter their clothes the same as [you can] a man's garment," she says.

Some New Yorkers are indignant that city government is snooping into hair salons and dressing rooms. "it's pernicious nonsense," says Leslie Siben, a lawyer, who thinks it may put tony hair salons out of business. "There is no way a man will pay $80 for a haircut - women are conditioned to those prices."

A City Council survey in 1996 found that hair salons charge women on average 20 percent more than they do men for basic cuts. "Women are indignant," says Mark Green, the city's public advocate and a co-sponsor of the legislation.

That's certainly the case with Ms. Becker. When she takes her blouses to the cleaners, she insists they get laundered and charged the same prices as her husband's shirts. "They think I'm a penny-pincher, but I feel strongly about that kind of thing," she says.

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