Civil-Rights Panel Urges Rejection of Comparable-Worth Theory
Washington--The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended last week that federal civil-rights enforcement agencies and the Congress reject the use of comparable worth as a means to close the gap in wages between male and female workers.
The commission described comparable worth as an "unsound and misplaced concept."
Comparable worth is the concept that men and women should be paid equally for jobs that may not be identical but that require comparable levels of skill, effort, training, and responsibility. It was first advanced because of the low salary scale in many fields of work that have traditionally been dominated by women, such as teaching, nursing, and secretarial jobs.
Against Comparable Worth
The commission voted 5 to 2 in favor of the position against comparable worth. Commissioners Mary Frances Berry and Blandina Cardenas Ramirez cast the two dissenting votes.
They argued that comparable worth should be applied "prudently with a full recognition of any limitations that might exist," and that "its use can be an important tool in the arsenal for attacking employment discrimination."
Commissioner Francis S. Guess did not concur or dissent, explaining that, as commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Labor, a possible conflict of interest prevented him from voting on the issue.
The commission's findings were immediately attacked by a host of labor and women's organizations, which argued that the notion of comparable worth is needed to address longstanding sex discrimination in the workplace.
In particular, such groups contend that the standard of equal pay for equal work--which requires that men and women be paid the same for the same job--does not address the problems of many working women who are employed in low-paying jobs in which they have few male peers.
The commission's recommendations on the subject stem from a draft report on comparable worth. That report was based on two days of commission "consultations" in June in which 16 expert witnesses presented formal papers and participated in panel discussions.
The commission's staff also analyzed additional materials presented to them over a nine-month period, according to Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., chairman of the commission.
According to the report, "the wage gap between female and male earnings in America results, at least in significant part, from a variety of things having nothing to do with [sex] discrimination by employers.'' In particular, the report points to the role women play in child-rearing, which it says affects their choices of jobs, career expectations, and participation in the labor force.
"Innocent" employers should not be forced through the vehicle of comparable worth to make up for a gap between the wages of men and wom-en that they have not caused by discrimination, the commission found.
Disparity in pay between two different jobs that employers may view as having comparable worth can be due to a range of factors--including merit, seniority, quality of production, and collective bargaining--and is not by itself either discriminatory or a result of discrimination, the commission said.
It also noted that job-evaluation studies, which would play an important role in determining whether different jobs are of comparable6worth, are "inherently subjective" and thus "cannot prove the existence of sex-based wage discrimination."
"Those courts that have considered wage-discrimination claims based on a theory of comparable worth per se have overwhelmingly rejected it as a theory on which to base a complaint," said Mr. Pendleton. Other members of the commission argued that the notion of comparable worth would result in a state-controlled economy by reducing the ability of employers and em-ployees to bargain for wages.
In their dissenting opinion, Ms. Berry and Ms. Ramirez stated that "if in a given case any part of the wage gap is caused by the employer's reliance on historic or current job segregation, then the employer should be held accountable for a remedy." Ms. Berry complained that commission members had come to the meeting "to praise rejection of comparable worth and pay equity, rather than to discuss it."
Similarly, Eileen Stein, chairman of the National Committee on Pay Equity, called the commission's report "a statement of the preconceptions of the commission's majority, rather than a conclusion openmindedly reached after investigation and deliberation."
In a prepared statement, she accused the commission of having become "little more than a tax-supported advocacy group--one which publicizes the Reagan Administration's anti-civil-rights philosophy and seeks to undermine the rights of all Americans to be free from discrimination in the workplace."