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Landmark Comparable-Worth Suit Settled

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The State of Washington has agreed to distribute $106.5 million over a six-year period to its workers who have been the victims of sex-based wage discrimination, under the terms of a settlement reached this month with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

The agreement, stemming from the union's lawsuit charging that the state discriminated against women workers by paying them less than men doing comparable jobs, will affect more than 35,000 employees, including non-professorial and non-administrative workers in state colleges and universities.

The settlement is noteworthy, experts say, because the union's lawsuit was viewed as the first major test of the controversial concept of comparable worth. That concept goes beyond the notion of "equal pay for equal work" by calling for more subtle evaluations comparing wage rates for similar, rather than exactly the same, kinds of jobs.

Opponents and supporters of comparable worth alike are calling the agreement a victory. Opponents, who have included Reagan Administration officials and business leaders, say they are pleased because it leaves standing a September 1985 appellate ruling that rejected the comparable-worth concept. Supporters, on the other hand, see the agreement as an indication that "governments are getting serious and realistic about treating it as the problem it is," said Amy Mayers, an afscme spokesman.

Sex-Based Inequities

Under the settlement, the state will spend $46.5 million from April 1 of this year to June 30, 1987, to correct sex-based inequities in the state's wage scales. It will contribute an additional $10 million each July 1, from 1987 to 1992. And employees in predominantly female occupations will also receive regular wage increases.

The ruling does not provide the workers with back pay, which lawyers for the plaintiffs have estimated would cost $1 billion.

The Washington legislature appropriated $42 million last summer to be used for pay-equity adjustments; those funds were contingent upon an out-of-court settlement of the suit.

The agreement must be reviewed and approved by the legislature and by U.S. District Judge Jack E. Tanner, who ruled in 1983 that 14,000 women employees were paid significantly lower wages than male colleagues in jobs requiring essentially the same kinds of skills. (The settlement applies to an additional 21,000 employees because it seeks to correct discrimination in areas besides those that are predominantly female, according to union officials.)

"The Washington State case can be credited with bringing to the fore of public consciousness the pervasiveness of sex-based wage discrimination," Gerald W. McEntee, president of afscme, said in Olympia upon announcing the settlement with Gov. Booth Gardner.

Among its other successes in the past year, afscme cites a $12-million pay-equity adjustment covering 4,000 clerical workers and librarians in Los Angeles; a $40-million, four-year settlement with the union on behalf of 9,000 workers in female-dominated state jobs in Minnesota; and a $5.6-million equity adjustment contained in the contract between afscme and Connecticut covering 9,000 workers.

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