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Suit Over 14,000 Employees Had Roots in Job Evaluation

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The Washington State suit that may lead to a U.S. Supreme Court test of the concept of comparable worth had its beginnings 10 years ago in the request of a national union that the state conduct a job evaluation, according to a spokesman for the union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (afscme) Council 28 of afl-cio

The study, and more extensive studies conducted every two years thereafter, showed that female-dominated jobs in the state paid an average of 20 percent--or approximately $175 per month--less than comparable male-dominated jobs.

In 1977, then-Gov. Daniel Evans signed a bill adding $7 million to the state budget for corrective action. But when Gov. Dixy Lee Ray came into office in early 1978, she removed the money from the budget.

Sex-Discrimination Charges

And when the state refused to comply with the recommendations of its own personnel board to raise the women's wages, according to George Masten of afscme, the union filed sex-discrimination charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (eeoc) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, and/or national origin. On July 20, 1982, the union brought suit on those grounds in federal district court.

(According to officials of the eeoc, in fiscal 1982 the agency had reports of 4,402 "issues"--situations that could lead to formal complaints--in which sex discrimination was alleged because of wage disparities.)

Supreme Court Case

Only one pay-equity case has thus far reached the Supreme Court. In 1981, the Court heard arguments in a case involving jail matrons in California who were paid less than their male colleagues. In that case, the Court ruled that the salary scales of the female jail matrons should be raised to meet those of the men in comparable positions.

In their ruling, the Justices indicated that discrimination claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act are not limited to the standard of "equal pay for equal work" established in the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

But while that case, County of Washington v. Gunther, is often used as a precedent for comparable-worth arguments, it is generally acknowledged that the Court's ruling was too narrowly framed to provide clear guidance in other suits involving charges of wage discrimination under Title VII.--ab

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