Comparable worth: an idea whose time has come – and gone? – Free Online Library Essay

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.

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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.


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