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Court Rejects Washington State Pay-Equity Ruling

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has overruled a 1983 federal district-court ruling in which 14,000 women employees of Washington State were awarded substantial pay increases and back pay on the grounds that the state was guilty of sex-based wage discrimination.

The appellate ruling, which the union that brought the suit will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, deals a severe blow to the theory of comparable worth and could affect related suits around the country.

Writing for a three-judge panel of the court, Judge Anthony Kennedy said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not obligate Washington State to eliminate an economic inequality it did not create. "The state did not create the market disparity and has not been shown to have been motivated by impermissible sex-based considerations in setting salaries,'' he wrote.

"A study which indicates a particular wage structure might be more equitable should not categorically bind the employer who commissioned it," the court wrote, referring to a job-evaluation study conducted by the state in 1974 that showed that female-dominated jobs in the state paid an average of 20 percent less than comparable male-dominated jobs.

The court's ruling last week in Washington Federation of State Employees--afl-cio--American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees v. Washington State overturns Judge Jack E. Tanner's 1983 ruling, which, it was estimated, could have cost the state $1-billion.

The ruling has implications for public schools, where 90 percent of support-staff employees and approximately 27.5 percent of administrative staff members are women.

Supreme-Court Test

In a press conference held last Friday, Gerald W. McEntee, president of afscme, announced the plaintiffs' intention to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We believe that we have both the law and equity on our side," he said. "The significance of the case is not the illegality of sex-based wage discrimination--because it's clear it's the law--but whether it has been established that this specific employer has discriminated."

State Attorney General Ken Ei-kenberry, who applauded the court's action, has said he does not think the Supreme Court will agree to hear the case, according to press reports.

In the only pay-equity case that has been heard by the Court, the Justices ruled in 1981 that the pay scales of jail matrons in California should be raised to meet those of male colleagues in comparable positions.

In that case, the Justices ruled that discrimination claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act--the statute under which the afscme case was brought--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 cited as a precedent for comparable-worth arguments, experts acknowledge that the ruling was too narrowly framed to provide clear guidance in other similar suits.

Meanwhile, afscme was scheduled to go forward with plans this week to meet with state officials in an attempt to negotiate a settlement. The state legislature has already appropriated $42 million toward that end.

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