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Comparable worth: an idea whose time has come - and gone?

In the fall of 1983, a Federal district judge ruled that the state of Washington had consistently discriminated against women by paying them lower salaries than men. The argument didn't quite boil down to equal pay for equal work because the work wasn't exactly the same. The disparity in salaries was between job classifications filled mostly by women and job classifications in which men predominated.

A relatively new concept called "comparable worth" was at issue in that discrimination case: the idea that men and women should receive like pay for different jobs of similar difficulty, requiring equivalent skills. As comparable worth became the basis of more and more legal suits against employers, some members of the medical technology profession wondered whether they could use the theory to gain higher salaries.

After all, here's a field where women outnumber men and where pay levels are depressed in comparison with other occupations that seem to be no more demanding. For example, most hospital pharmacists are male and even those with just a bachelor's degree outearn lab technologists. In municipalities, sanitation workers often make more money than MTs at city hospital labs.

Can comparable worth improve the lot of medical technologists in these and many other similar situations? Probably not.

While public employee unions continue to press the theory in legal actions across the nation, courts and government fair employment agencies are reluctant to embrace it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is due to decide soon whether comparable worth is a legitimate basis for upholding job discrimination complaints. Clarence Thomas, EEOC chairman, indicated recently that the answer will be no. He said comparable worth hasn't mustered much legal support.

Thomas, a black lawyer, emphasized that he favors equal pay for men and women. "To say that the Administration does not believe in comparable worth is not to say that we don't believe in pay equity," he said. "There's a tendency to interchange these (terms)."

The U.S. Supreme Court refused last November to hear an appeal from a group of nurses employed by the University of Washington. The nurses' comparable worth argument had earlier been rejected by a Federal appeals court, which held that they failed to prove their lower pay resulted from discriminatory treatment.

At a far lower level of adjudication, a hearing officer for the Alaska Commission on Human Rights recently turned down a complaint by 11 women employed as nurses by the State Public Health Service. They claimed they received substantially less pay than doctors' assistants, all men, in the state correctional system. The hearing officer said the nurses did not show their jobs were sufficiently similar to those of the doctors' assistants.

In Calfornia, comparable worth has been pressed as an issue in the legislature as well as the courts. Republican Governor George Deukmejian last year vetoed a $76.6 million spending bill passed as a step toward salary parity by the Democratic legislature. The governor said bargaining, not legislation, was the best way to handle the matter.

The state of Washington has appealed the 1983 Federal court decision that it discriminated against female employees--so the single most important victory for comparable worth advocates is only a tentative one at present. The judge had ordered the state to give 15,000 state workers, mostly women, $800 million in back pay. He was guided by a consulting firm's evaluation of jobs that were comparable with higher-paying positions held by men.

There's not much hope in all of this for a marked improvement in medical technologists' salaries. Widespread change is unlikely because each case is fought on its own merits within each employment setting. And comparable worth is hard to prove even if a court or agency is willing to accept the legal validity of the theory.

Medical technologists should by all means strive for better pay. But comparable worth right now seems to be a formidable route if not a dead end.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Fitzgibbon, Robert J.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Article Type:editorial
Date:Feb 1, 1985
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