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N.J. Teachers' Group Likely To Test Concept of Pay Equity in Court

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East Brunswick, NJ--Calling the issue of pay equity "the most revolutionary thing that's come about since labor organized," a researcher with the New Jersey Education Association last week said the association will probably test the concept in a suit designed to set a precedent for the state's school districts.

Until the legal test is completed, the researcher advised, members should avoid bringing pay-equity matters to the bargaining table.

In one of the first state-level conferences devoted to the issue of pay equity, Ann Whitford, associate director of the njea's research division, told a group of men and women attending the one-day meeting on "Women in Education" that pay equity is a concept that "attacks the holiest of management rights--the right to be unfair, the right to be arbitrary."

'Red Shirt'

"If you take on the comparable-worth issue, you are going to be viewed as wearing at least a red shirt because you are going to be attacking the very underpinning of management-labor laws," Ms. Whitford said.

"It's important to note that comparable worth is an issue of fairness," said Gloria Johnson, director of education and women's issues for the Coalition of Labor Union Women and national treasurer of the International Union of Electrical Workers.

"It is not a women's issue; it is a fairness issue."

The njea's staff committee on comparable worth, Ms. Whitford said, has been examining cases of possible pay discrimination in New Jersey that might constitute the basis for a lawsuit.

With the advice of lawyers and members, the committee plans to present a "best-case scenario" to bring before the courts in the next year to set a statewide precedent on the issue as it relates to local school districts.

Preliminary findings of the panel are scheduled to be released in May.

Election Ties

The success of the comparable-worth concept is closely tied to the November Presidential election, Ms. Whitford told members. "It is a social issue and it is an issue that will wind up [in court]," she said. "If you want to move this issue, you want to get out the vote."

Noting that the next President will probably have the opportunity to fill several vacant U.S. Supreme Court positions, Ms. Whitford urged members to vote for a candidate like Walter F. Mondale, who, she said, has a strong civil-rights record.

In a case that has been appealed to the Supreme Court but not yet accepted, a federal district judge in Washington State last year ruled that the state was guilty of wage discrimination when it paid women employees less than men performing similar kinds of work. (See Education Week, Sept. 28, 1983.)

In the case, which was brought 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, Judge Jack E. Tanner ruled that 14,000 female state employees must receive substantial pay increases.

The suit could have a major effect on public schools, 90 percent of whose support-staff employees and about 27.5 percent of whose administrative staff members are women. In New Jersey, 20 percent of the schools' administrative staff members are women.

Since the njea's pay-equity litigation will most likely take "four or five years" to bring to a resolution, Ms. Whitford advised members to proceed with other efforts to achieve equal pay for jobs of comparable value.

School-district employees must keep in mind, she said, that although individuals may not discriminate, "various systems in our society perpetuate systemic forms of discrimination."

Evaluation Research

Employees in a school system that has conducted a job-evaluation study can use that research to begin evaluating jobs of comparable worth, Ms. Whitford said. In the Washington State case, the state had conducted a job-evaluation study but did not upgrade pay scales according to the study's findings that workers in predominantly fe-male jobs earned less than those in predominantly male positions.

But in most school districts, Ms. Whitford said, evaluation studies have not been conducted and, partly as a result of the Washington case, management is being warned to avoid conducting such studies because of the potential consequences.

She also cautioned against relying on job-evaluation studies that may contain what she termed societal bias. The job duties that are valued in many job-evaluation studies, Ms. Whitford pointed out, "seem to be those that came out of an agrarian society," such as physical labor. "If you don't sweat, what you do [has not been] valued historically, until recently," she said.

Evaluation schemes that are outdated should be changed to reflect the current value of each job to the employer, Ms. Whitford said. And employees should ensure that assessment systems evaluate the job, not the person who holds the job.

"There is not any really good, nonsexist evaluation system," Ms. Whitford argued, adding that the lack is especially notable in service sectors, such as education, that do not produce an easily identifiable "product."

'Total Physical'

Employees who work in districts that have not conducted job-evaluation studies must start from scratch, Ms. Whitford said. "Give your district a total physical," she advised, telling members to study the employment contracts, hourly rates, duties, required training, and qualifications needed for each job in the district.

"The training level is recognized as a good [starting] point" in determining which jobs are comparable, Ms. Whitford said.

She noted that since the issue of comparable worth is likely to be viewed negatively by employees in predominantly male positions who are earning more than those in predmoninantly female positions, "it is crucial that you get together and explain, educate, and reassure ... that for you to get more money, you're not going to take it out of other people's pockets."

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