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Comparable Worth

The idea that men and women should receive equal pay when they perform work that involves comparable skills and responsibility or that is of comparable worth to the employer; also known as pay equity.

Many jobs are segregated by sex. For example, approximately 80 percent of all office secretaries are female, and approximately 99 percent of all construction workers are male. Both jobs demand valuable, if different, skills. However, the annual income of a secretary is only three-fifths that of a construction worker. Comparable worth seeks to remedy this and other sex-based wage inequities by identifying and eliminating sex as an element in wage setting.

The term comparable worth describes the notion that sex-segregated jobs should be reanalyzed to determine their worth to an employer. In practice, comparable worth consists of raising wages for traditionally female-dominated jobs to the level of those for comparable male-dominated jobs. Comparable worth should not be confused with equal pay for equal work. Rather, comparable worth policies promote equal pay for comparable work.

During World War II many women took jobs in what had traditionally been male fields of work. Ten years after the war ended, the Census Bureau released figures showing that women earned only 64 percent of what men earned.

Proponents of comparable worth argue that SEX DISCRIMINATION in wage setting has been built into society and has tainted the law of supply and demand. Women have endured centuries of devaluation, and the devaluation is reflected in the value attached to work traditionally performed by females. According to supporters, wages should be reset after comprehensive studies are made and statistical analyses undertaken to better reflect the true value produced by an employee.

Some critics of comparable worth maintain that wage fairness is achieved by allowing free-market forces to set the value of jobs. They argue that employers, not the courts or legislatures, should set wages and that sufficient legislation is already in place to prevent discrimination based on sex. They further argue that wage disparities are largely a result of innocent forces, such as differences in experience and education, the tendency of women to make educational choices that do not interfere with childbearing and child rearing, and the tendency of women to leave and reenter the job market more frequently than men.

Other critics of comparable worth, including some WOMEN'S RIGHTS advocates, argue that comparable worth efforts are well-intentioned but misplaced. According to these opponents, the best way for women to win wage equality is to integrate fully into all sectors of the economy. Comparable worth may work to the immediate benefit of those in traditionally "female" jobs, critics contend, but it fails to promote long-term advancement for women.

Generally, employees in a wage system based on comparable worth are paid according to job evaluations that concentrate on the differences between sex-segregated jobs. The job evaluations are conducted by vocational experts who examine the various characteristics of each job in the system, including the skill, education, and effort required; the level of independent decision making required; the working conditions; and accountability. The job evaluations yield a point total for each job, which is used to determine employee compensation.

In 1955, the U.S. CENSUS BUREAU published, for the first time, the ratio of women's to men's full-time, year-round, median annual earnings. The figures revealed that women were earning 64 percent of what men were earning. This imbalance persisted. In 1960, women aged 25 to 34 earned 65 percent of what men in the same age group earned. In 1980, the same women, now aged 45 to 54, were earning only 54 percent as much as men in the same age group. Census figures for 1980 also disclosed that full-time, year-round female professionals were earning less than semiskilled male blue-collar workers, and female college graduates were earning less than male high school graduates who had not attended college.

Women's pay became a national issue after the enormous contribution of women to the workforce in WORLD WAR II, and a simmering controversy shortly after the 1955 census report. The U.S. Congress took action by passing the EQUAL PAY ACT OF 1963 (29 U.S.C.A. § 206(d)) (EPA). The EPA mandates the same pay for all persons who do the same work, without regard to sex. This means that an employer may not discriminate between employees on the basis of sex by paying lower wages to women who perform the same work as men. In 1964, Congress enacted title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-2(a)), which provides that employers may not discriminate in employment practices on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. Like the EPA, title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against women by paying them less than they pay males who perform the same work.

Women's rights advocates and LABOR UNION leaders were inspired by these bold federal acts and sought to extend them. In the fight against sex-based wage discrimination, women began to demand not only equal pay for equal work, but also equal pay for comparable work. States, cities, and towns began experimenting with the idea of wage restructuring based on comparable worth studies. In 1977, with the support of ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (D-D.C.), then chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), comparable worth came to national attention. Women's rights advocates adopted the slogan Fifty-nine Cents, which represented, according to Judy Goldsmith, past president of the NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR WOMEN (NOW), "the plain frightening fact that most women are paid just over half as much as men for the very same work." The comparable worth movement grew, but not without opposition. In 1985, President RONALD REAGAN described comparable worth as a "cockamamie idea."

The state of Washington was at the forefront of the comparable worth movement. In 1974, Washington began a study of sex-related differences for a selected group of sex-segregated positions in the state civil service. The study revealed that female employees in job classes requiring the same level of skill, effort, and responsibility earned 25 to 35 percent less than employees in comparable male-dominated positions. Despite these figures, the state legislature declined to implement comparable worth laws. Two more studies were conducted, in 1976 and 1980, and both corroborated the findings of the first study.

The Washington Legislature continued to reject comparable worth. In 1981, the EEOC refused to take action on charges filed with it against the state of Washington by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE). On July 20, 1982, AFSCME and WFSE filed a CLASS ACTION suit against the state. The case was initiated by eight women and one man on behalf of all the male and female employees under the jurisdiction of the Washington Department of Personnel and the Washington Higher Education Personnel Board, who had worked or were working in positions that were 70 percent or more female. The government employees alleged that the state had discriminated against employees in female-dominated jobs by paying them lower wages than employees in comparable male-dominated jobs. This, according to the state employees, violated title VII of the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT of 1964. The District Court for the Western District of Washington agreed and awarded $400 million in back pay to female state employees.

The state of Washington appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned the award (AFSCME, 770 F.2d 1401 [1985]). In its opinion, the Ninth Circuit court declared that an employer may set wages according to the prevailing market rate even if that market discriminates against women. According to the court, the value of a particular job is only one of several elements that influence the wages that the job commands. Another element, noted the court, is job availability. The court further recognized that the state in this case did not itself create any economic disparity. Although the state was free to institute a comparable worth policy, it could not be obliged "to eliminate an economic inequality that it did not create." Ultimately, the court held that, absent a discriminatory motive, it would not interfere with the state's decision to base wages on prevailing market standards.

After the appeals court decision, AFSCME, WFSE, and the state of Washington negotiated a comparable worth framework for state employees. The framework was based on the state's plan, which called for a gradual move to restructure its employees' wages on the basis of comparable worth. Washington now maintains a comparable worth statute, Revised Code of Washington, section 41.06.155, which mandates the achievement of comparable worth for all state government employees.

San Jose, California, was another early battleground for comparable worth proponents. In 1979, city government workers went on strike to protest wage disparities. After a nine-day strike, the city agreed to provide pay EQUITY adjustments and other salary adjustments to city workers. In 1983 and 1990, additional comparable worth adjustments were gained by the San Jose chapter of AFSCME.

Comparable worth has been won in numerous quarters through COLLECTIVE BARGAINING. Montgomery County, Maryland, workers negotiated pay equity increases in 1989, and in 1992, Montgomery County school employees received $484,000 in pay equity increases. In 1991, the

Best and Worst States in Earnings for Women
Five Best Female Earnings per $1 Male Five Worst Female Earnings per $1 Male
SOURCE: Detroit Free Press, "Michigan Among Worst in Equal Pay for Women," September 19, 2002.
Washington, D.C. $0.90 West Virginia $0.68
Hawaii $0.80 Utah $0.67
Florida $0.79 Michigan $0.67
California $0.78 Louisiana $0.66
Vermont $0.78 Wyoming $0.63

Utility Workers of America negotiated a 15 percent pay equity increase for clerical workers in the Southern California Gas Company. In 1991 and 1992, clerical workers represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) went on strike at Columbia University in New York. After a ten-month strike, an agreement was reached that included pay equity increases for both male and female workers.

Many courts are unwilling to order employers to enact comparable worth pay standards in the absence of legislation. Thus, comparable worth advocates have turned to the legislative process. Minnesota has been an enduring model for achieving comparable worth through legislation. In 1979, the Minnesota Department of Finance completed a study that included an evaluation of state and local government jobs. In 1981, the Council on the Economic Status of Women established the Task Force on Pay Equity to examine salary differences between comparable male and female jobs in state government. The task force report showed consistent inequities between comparable male- and female-dominated jobs, and the Minnesota state legislature passed the State Government Pay Equity Act in 1982 (1982 Minn. Laws c. 64, § 1 et seq.). In 1983, the legislature provided the funds for pay increases, and the Minnesota Department of Employee Relations (DOER) negotiated new contracts for state employees. These contracts included pay equity increases for under-paid female-dominated job classes and cost-of-living increases for all job classes.

In 1984, the Minnesota state legislature enacted the Local Government Pay Equity Act (Minn. Stat. Ann. §§ 471.991 et seq.), which mandated a comparable worth program for cities, counties, school districts, and other units of local government. In 1987 and 1988, the legislature passed laws that assessed fines for local government units that did not report according to provisions of the Local Government Pay Equity Act. In 1996, a DOER report revealed that 92 percent of local government units in Minnesota had achieved pay equity. Those not in compliance with reporting requirements were subject to penalties of up to five percent of state funding, or $100 a day.

Pay equity is a growing movement that builds on progress made in the 1980s. During that time, 20 states adjusted their payrolls to ameliorate sex or race inequities; seven of these states fully implemented broad-based comparable worth laws for their state government employees. States continue to lead in the area of pay equity. For example, New Hampshire has established reporting requirements and enforcement procedures to ensure fair pay; Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming have passed legislation requiring studies in comparable worth; and Maine's DEPARTMENT OF LABOR assists in enforcing existing pay equity laws in the state.

In the early twenty-first century, comparable worth legislation was introduced in over half the state legislatures. On the federal level, two newer pieces of legislation were introduced in 2003: the Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act. Representative Holmes Norton and Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the Fair Pay Act in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate respectively. The Fair Pay Act seeks to broaden the Equal Pay Act's protections against wage discrimination to workers in equivalent jobs with similar skills and responsibilities, even if the jobs are not identical. Senator Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and representative from Connecticut Rosa DeLauro (D-New Haven) introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act in the Senate and House. The Paycheck Fairness Act is an attempt to provide better remedies to workers who are not being paid equal wages for doing equal work. Passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act would amend the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Department of Labor, Bureau of Statistics. 2002. Highlights of Women's Earnings in 2001. (Report 960) Available online at <www.bls.gov/cps/cpswom2001.pdf> (accessed May 7, 2003)

National Committee on Pay Equity. Available online at <www.feminist.com/fairpay/index.htm> (accessed May 7, 2003).


Affirmative Action; Employment Law.

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