In the fall of 1983, a Federal district judge ruled that the state ofWashington had consistently discriminated against women by paying themlower salaries than men.
The argument didn’t quite boil down toequal pay for equal work because the work wasn’t exactly the same.The disparity in salaries was between job classifications filled mostlyby women and job classifications in which men predominated. A relatively new concept called “comparable worth” was atissue in that discrimination case: the idea that men and women shouldreceive like pay for different jobs of similar difficulty, requiringequivalent skills. As comparable worth became the basis of more andmore legal suits against employers, some members of the medicaltechnology profession wondered whether they could use the theory to gainhigher salaries. After all, here’s a field where women outnumber men and wherepay levels are depressed in comparison with other occupations that seemto be no more demanding. For example, most hospital pharmacists aremale and even those with just a bachelor’s degree outearn labtechnologists.
In municipalities, sanitation workers often make moremoney than MTs at city hospital labs. Can comparable worth improve the lot of medical technologists inthese and many other similar situations? Probably not. While public employee unions continue to press the theory in legalactions across the nation, courts and government fair employmentagencies are reluctant to embrace it. The Equal Employment OpportunityCommission is due to decide soon whether comparable worth is alegitimate basis for upholding job discrimination complaints.
ClarenceThomas, 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 menand women. “To say that the Administration does not believe incomparable worth is not to say that we don’t believe in payequity,” he said. “There’s a tendency to interchangethese (terms).” The U.S.
Supreme Court refused last November to hear an appealfrom a group of nurses employed by the University of Washington. Thenurses’ comparable worth argument had earlier been rejected by aFederal appeals court, which held that they failed to prove their lowerpay resulted from discriminatory treatment. At a far lower level of adjudication, a hearing officer for theAlaska Commission on Human Rights recently turned down a complaint by 11women employed as nurses by the State Public Health Service. Theyclaimed they received substantially less pay than doctors’assistants, all men, in the state correctional system. The hearingofficer said the nurses did not show their jobs were sufficientlysimilar to those of the doctors’ assistants. In Calfornia, comparable worth has been pressed as an issue in thelegislature as well as the courts. Republican Governor GeorgeDeukmejian last year vetoed a $76.6 million spending bill passed as astep toward salary parity by the Democratic legislature.
The governorsaid bargaining, not legislation, was the best way to handle the matter. The state of Washington has appealed the 1983 Federal courtdecision that it discriminated against female employees–so the singlemost important victory for comparable worth advocates is only atentative one at present. The judge had ordered the state to give15,000 state workers, mostly women, $800 million in back pay. He wasguided by a consulting firm’s evaluation of jobs that werecomparable with higher-paying positions held by men. There’s not much hope in all of this for a marked improvementin medical technologists’ salaries.
Widespread change is unlikelybecause each case is fought on its own merits within each employmentsetting. And comparable worth is hard to prove even if a court oragency 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 adead end.