WASHINGTON — Backers of comparable-worth pay formulas said Thursday that they will go to the Supreme Court to challenge a ruling overturning a controversial 1983 decision that could have provided up to $1 billion to Washington state employees in jobs dominated by women.
Leaders of labor unions and women's groups assailed a decision Wednesday by a federal court of appeals in San Francisco that struck down the 1983 ruling--the first in the nation to accept the novel pay doctrine.
"We were shocked," Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said. "We're going to take it to the Supreme Court, where, hopefully, we can win on this issue once and for all."
However, spokesmen for business groups and the Reagan Administration praised the appellate ruling, saying that it had dealt a severe, perhaps fatal, legal blow to the concept of comparable worth.
"At this point, in the legal context, it's a dead duck," Patrick Korten, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said. Korten called the appellate decision "excellent," saying that the court took the same general position that the Administration had in other comparable-worth cases.
Employer groups agreed. "Comparable worth is an idea with superficial political appeal, but now it is legally bankrupt," Virginia Lamp, a labor relations attorney for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said. "Employers know now that they can't be accused of discrimination just because they pay market wages--and that's a relief."
Federal anti-discrimination law requires equal pay for workers doing substantially the same jobs. The comparable-worth movement takes that requirement a step further, contending that equal pay should be given to persons holding different jobs--such as an electrician and a secretary--that are rated by employment experts as of equal value, regardless of market factors.
Pay Disparity Studies Cited
Proponents of the idea cite studies showing significant pay disparities between workers in occupations dominated by women and those dominated by men that they say are comparable in worth.
Critics say that the concept is arbitrary and subjective--and that the "worth" of a job can only be calculated by what it brings in the marketplace. President Reagan recently termed comparable worth "a cockamamie idea . . . that would destroy the basis of free enterprise."
The landmark comparable-worth case began in Washington state in 1981, after a state-commissioned study found that state workers in male-dominated jobs were being paid 20% more than workers in female-dominated jobs. The study said, among other things, that laundry workers should be paid as much as truck drivers and that librarians should be paid twice as much as carpenters.
In 1983, U.S. District Judge Jack E. Tanner in Tacoma, Wash., ruled that the state had violated provisions of the federal Civil Rights Act that forbid job discrimination and ordered it to raise the salaries and give back pay to more than 15,000 workers in female-dominated occupations. State officials said that the decision could cost the state up to $1 billion.
In Wednesday's ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Tanner's decision, saying that the federal law did not require the state to eliminate inequalities for which it was not responsible.
"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," Judge Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in an opinion joined by Judges Eugene A. Wright and Thomas J. McBride.
Comparable-worth supporters expressed disappointment with the ruling but vowed to continue their fight. McEntee, at a news conference, said that the decision will not adversely affect recent comparable-worth agreements reached between public employee unions and some states and cities, including Los Angeles.
More than 20 states, including California, have conducted pay-equity studies, according to the government employees' union.
Elsewhere, Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, said at a National Press Club luncheon that it is time to "raise hell" in the courts and in Congress to gain acceptance of comparable worth. Smeal said that she is "fighting mad" about the appellate decision.
"We intend to break out of the ghetto that low wages have created for us," she said.
Although the comparable-worth drive thus far has concentrated on governmental employers, representatives of private businesses said that Wednesday's decision will help them, too, to protect against accusations of pay discrimination against women.
"We are elated," Jerry Jasinowski, executive vice president of the National Assn. of Manufacturers, said. "Setting different salary and wage rates for different occupations is simply not discrimination. Businesses will rest easier today knowing they won't be dragged into court based on the idea that jobs have some inherent worth regardless of market conditions."
Times Staff Writer Betty Cuniberti contributed to this story.