Comparable Worth Issue Argued in County Talks

Times Staff Writer

The union representing public employees who administer aid programs in Orange County has raised the controversial issue of "comparable worth" in its contract negotiations with the county, charging that its members, mostly women, earn far less than men performing similar jobs.

JoAnn Horstman, president of the union representing county workers who process payments to recipients of food stamps, general relief, Medi-Cal, Aid to Families With Dependent Children and other assistance, said the local is seeking a 10% pay hike from the county.

Horstman said the aid programs' employees, known as "eligibility workers," want a 5% salary increase and an additional 5% "pay equity" increase included in a one-year contract. The union's current two-year contract expires July 4.

80% Are Women

A county head custodian with three months' experience, according to Horstman, can earn 23% more than the $1,122 to $1,634 monthly wages earned by the eligibility workers. Horstman said 80% of the local's members are women and about half belong to minority groups.

Social workers, deputy public guardians and real property specialists, who have skills and responsibilities similar to the eligibility workers, earn up to 38% more than members of the Orange County Eligibility Workers Union, she said.

"The pay discrepancies are even greater when compared to job classification for crafts such as carpenters, electricians and plumbers, which are male-dominated," Horstman said.

Union members carrying picket signs marched in the noon sunshine outside the county Hall of Administration Friday to try to persuade county officials to meet their demands. Some of them echoed Horstman's charges.

"The predominantly male jobs get more money than predominantly female jobs," said Richard Young, who processes applicants for AFDC and Medi-Cal payments, and has been an eligibility worker for six years.

Young said the average worker in his position was responsible for disbursing at least $400,000 in aid each year, yet "they pay us less than they do the garbage men."

Talks between the union and the county were declared to have reached an impasse June 11, but resumed Friday with assistance from a state mediator. Horstman said the county improved its pay offer a bit, but not enough.

Meeting Scheduled

She said union members would meet next week to discuss the negotiations. No new date has been set to resume talks, although county officials said they would probably be held again next week.

The county's original offer was a 3.5% increase effective July 5, an additional hike of 0.5% next Jan. 1, and 3.75% more effective July 1 of next year. The county is seeking a two-year agreement.

The Orange County Eligibility Workers Union is part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The City of Los Angeles last month agreed to the concept of comparable worth raised by an AFSCME local representing city employees. The city agreed to raise the salaries of 3,900 women holding traditionally low-paying city jobs to bring their wages into line with the pay of men in jobs on the same level.

The agreement, with an estimated cost of $12 million, would bring the salaries of such female-dominated occupations as secretary, clerk and librarian into line with male-dominated classifications such as gardeners, drivers and maintenance personnel.

Agreed to Pay Increase

Earlier this month, Orange County agreed to a 4.75% wage increase for 7,800 county employees. Of the 7,800 workers, 1,800 clerical employees will get an additional 5.5% in the first year of the two-year pact because their pay has lagged behind that of comparable workers elsewhere.

Horstman said the 5.5% represented "pay equity" or "comparable worth" pay, but John Sibley, the county's director of employee relations, vigorously disputed that interpretation.

"We don't buy into the concept of comparable worth as a salary-setting mechanism," Sibley said.

The extra increase for the clerical employees was a "special salary adjustment" of the type that has been given to other employees in past years, Sibley said. It was given because the county's clerical workers earn 21% less than their counterparts in some of the cities in Orange County, he added.

"We needed to get the salary up so we could attract and retain good clerical people," Sibley said. He added that eligibility workers in Orange County earn more than their counterparts in all but one county in a five-county Southern California region, trailing only the Los Angeles County eligibility workers.

Refers to Reagan Stand

Horstman said county officials "didn't want to call that (special agreement with county clerical employees) comparable worth or pay equity because they feel it will go against (President) Reagan or (Gov. George) Deukmejian . . . but that's what it is."

Reagan Administration officials have expressed their opposition to the concept of comparable worth.

The AFSCME has filed lawsuits against several cities and states in an effort to obtain salaries for women equal to those of men performing comparable jobs.

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