Reversing the nation's first statewide "comparable-worth" ruling, a federal appeals court said Wednesday that the state of Washington did not have to offer women equal pay for jobs of equal worth.
"Neither law nor logic deems the free market a suspect enterprise," the U.S. 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in reversing a landmark 1983 ruling that could have provided as much as $1 billion to 15,500 Washington state employees.
The original ruling by U.S. District Judge Jack E. Tanner in Tacoma, Wash., was the first victory for advocates of comparable worth and helped to prompt other lawsuits and labor agreements on the concept.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees had sued the state of Washington, charging sex discrimination.
1974 Study Cited
The union cited a 1974 study that found a general tendency to pay state workers in male-dominated jobs roughly 20% more than those in jobs dominated by females, even though they involved equivalent skills, responsibilities, mental and physical demands and working conditions.
In his 1983 ruling, Tanner said Washington state discriminated in its pay scales between predominantly male and female jobs.
"You can't legally balance the (state) budget on the backs of women," the judge said.
While acknowledging that a salary gap existed, a three-judge appellate panel unanimously held that the gap was not proof that the state discriminated against female workers.
In language that could prove devastating to the comparable-worth theory, the opinion by Judge Anthony Kennedy said an employer can follow prevailing market wages in setting salaries, even if those wages underpay women.
"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," Kennedy said.
The 1964 federal Civil Rights Act "does not obligate (Washington) to eliminate an economic inequality which it did not create," Kennedy wrote.
"We find nothing in the language of Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act) or its legislative history to indicate Congress intended to abrogate fundamental economic principles, such as the laws of supply and demand, or to prevent employers from competing in the labor market."
The panel did leave open the possibility of legislative action in the comparable-worth field.
"While the Washington Legislature may have the discretion to enact a comparable-worth plan if it chooses to do so, Title VII does not obligate it to eliminate an economic inequality which it did not create," the court wrote.
Washington Atty. Gen. Ken Eikenberry hailed Wednesday's decision, saying Tanner was wrong in imposing a comparable-worth policy on the state.
"We're defending the prerogative of the (Washington) Legislature to set policy in this matter and implement (it) at a pace (it wishes)," Eikenberry said.
The legislators allocated about $42 million this year to help bring up the wages of female employees, and Eikenberry said Wednesday's ruling could slow negotiations on how that money is ultimately used.
"It really devalues the union's position," he said.
Spokesmen for the federation said it would continue to meet with state officials over the $42-million allocation.
Union president George Masten said the appellate court's decision will probably be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I happen to think the 9th Circuit is dead wrong on this issue," he said.
Last month, the Reagan Administration joined the battle over comparable worth, filing a brief opposing the concept with the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
Clarence Pendleton, appointed by President Reagan to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights earlier this year, labeled the concept as "probably the looniest idea since Looney Tunes came on the screen" and called it a scheme to "redistribute income."
Among several lawsuits that could be affected by Wednesday's ruling is a complaint filed on behalf of 37,000 former and current employees against the state of California, charging sex discrimination in salaries.
The California State Employees Assn. sued the state last year in federal court in San Francisco, citing a 1982 state study that found a 20% pay gap between men and women as a result of discrimination. The case has yet to go to trial.
Los Angeles officials with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said the appellate decision will not directly affect two comparable-worth agreements reached this spring with the City of Los Angeles.
The pacts will raise the salaries of 4,000 municipal clerical workers and librarians.
"These are binding agreements," said John Wyrough, executive director of American Federation's Council 36 in Los Angeles. "An injustice was recognized, and it was rectified through the collective-bargaining process."
Officials of women's groups were predictably angered by the 9th Circuit Court ruling.
Audrey McIlwrath, president of the Northeast Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, said:
"We have women who go to college to get a degree to run the offices of presidents of corporations, and janitors come in and get paid more money. It's absolutely ridiculous."
Meanwhile, in Sacramento, a bill declaring it is state policy to grant comparable salaries to state employees with comparable job responsibilities and conditions was passed by the state Senate Wednesday on 22-8 vote and sent to the governor's desk.
The implications of Wednesday's appeals court action on Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti's bill were not immediately known. The measure is similar to a Roberti bill vetoed by Gov. George Deukmejian two years ago on grounds that the issue should be resolved in negotiations with unions representing state workers, not by legislation.
Dan Morain reported from San Francisco