Raises, Back Pay Likely in Major Pay-Equity Case
The federal judge who is presiding over a major wage-discrimination suit involving public employees in Washington State indicated last week that he would award both back pay and substantial pay increases to more than 14,000 women employees of the state.
The suit--brought against the state by the Washington Federation of State Employees and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (afscme) Council 28 of afl-cio under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964--charged that the women were paid significantly lower wages than male colleagues in jobs requiring essentially the same kinds of skills. In September, U.S. District Judge Jack E. Tanner ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.
The case, Washington Federation of State Employees--afl-cio--American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees v. Washington State, is considered the first major test of the concept of "comparable worth" under federal law, and as such could have implications on wage practices throughout public education.
Last week, at the close of the first of two sets of hearings on the judgment, Judge Tanner said he would decide by Dec. 1 on a formula for upgrading the employees' wages. On Nov. 30, the judge said, he will decide on a basis for awarding back pay; he advised, however, that the state settle that matter out of court before then, according to Debbie Harrison, a clerk in the judge's office.
Winn Newman, the lawyer who argued the case for afscme, estimated that the compensation owed to the plaintiffs could amount to as much as $1 billion.
"It was a giant step forward in this process to bring equity on the setting of salaries and eliminating the sex discrimination," said George Masten, afscme's executive director. "The judge clearly advised that he is going to grant relief and that it is going to be immediate.''
Mr. Masten said Judge Tanner in-dicated he would choose from one of the two remedies that were presented in the hearings. They are: to pay all employees in predominantly female classes a 31-percent increase, the remedy afscme officials prefer, or to raise wages in all the predominantly female employment classes to the levels for comparable male classes, which would provide salary increases of 5 to 30 percent, depending on individual classes, Mr. Masten explained.
Dramatic Effect on Schools
The case, which represents the first time a comparable-worth case involving so many employees has reached the federal courts, could have a dramatic effect on public-school systems, in which 90 percent of support-staff employees and approximately 27.5 percent of administrative staff members are women.
"We're really encouraged by the way that the case is progressing out there, and we have every indication that this will be a case that will really settle for once and for all the fact that you can't continue to discriminate against women on the basis of wages," said Nancy Reder, chairman of the National Committee on Pay Equity.
State officials who spoke at the hearings opposed the awarding of large pay increases. "We argued that the state of Washington should be permitted to continue with its process of adopting its own comparable-worth basis of compensation," said Clark Davis, the state's assistant attorney general.
The state legislature last May authorized $1.5 million to raise salaries for jobs that are "evaluated as not paid their worth to compensation levels that would reflect their worth over a 10-year period," according to Mr. Davis. The legislature has appointed a committee to consider how to evaluate such jobs, he said.
If Judge Tanner rules in favor of back pay, "an appeal is likely," Mr. Davis said. If the state does appeal the decision--which would go to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit--Mr. Davis said the state would ask for a stay against any immediate raises.
Mr. Masten estimated that an appeal could take from 12 to 20 months.
He said such a delay would be "highly disappointing," but added that union officials are aware that an appeal by the state is likely.