COMPARABLE WORTH, or equal pay for different work, is emerging as one of the most controversial labor issues of the 1980s. On Jan. 3, legislation was introduced in Congress to authorize a study of alleged pay disparities between civil service jobs held mainly by men and ones primarily performed by women. A similar bill was passed last year by the House.

Legislatures in several states, including Minnesota and Iowa, have recently passed measures seeking the adoption of comparable worth in state pay practices. Legislatures in a number of other states including Nevada, Rhode Island and Virginia have either authorized or passed resolutions calling for comparable worth studies of state employment. In California, Connecticut, Hawaii and Illinois, public employes are in federal court, charging their employers (in most cases, the states) with violations of federal law that they believe already requires equal pay for jobs of allegedly comparable value.

Meanwhile, in New Haven, Conn., the comparable worth movement has made its most publicized stand in the private sector. Seeking more pay in contract negotiations with Yale University, the school's clerical and technical workers, who are predominantly female, have publicly couched their demands in terms of the equal pay for different work debate. For example, it was said that Yale's administrative assistants, who are mostly female and make on average $13,424, do work at least as valuable to the university as its truck drivers, who are mostly men and make on average $18,470.

Comparable worth has gained a degree of popularity in some circles. But in our view, comparable worth cannot be justified on any ground -- legal, economic or policy. It does not merit adoption by the public sector, and one can be sure of this: It would enter the private sector only by government mandate.

What is comparable worth, and why is it said that we need it? Contrary to what its advocates say, comparable worth is not the same as equal pay for equal work. Equal pay for equal work means that two printers, one male and one female, who do the same work for the same employer, should be paid the same. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 affirms this principle of basic fairness. No one questions its validity, and this administration wholeheartedly supports it.

Comparable worth incarnates a far different principle -- that two jobs, one performed mostly by women, the other mostly by men, which are not identical but are alleged to be "comparable" in value to employers or society, should pay the same wage.

In a case pending in a federal district court in Michigan, for example, secretaries, almost all of whom are female and are paid $12,882 to $16,432 annually, are said to perform jobs of as much worth as those held by maintenance mechanics, who are all male and earn from $15,868 to $19,961 a year. Not equal pay for equal work but equal pay for work of allegedly comparable worth -- indeed, different work -- that is the idea involved.

Comparable worth proponents note that jobs traditionally held by women -- nursing, secretarial and other office jobs, for example -- have paid less than those traditionally performed by men, such as plumbing, engineering and maintenance.

They argue that the "female" jobs are worth at least as much to employers or society as the "male" ones. The explanation for the difference in pay, they assert, must be sex-based discrimination. Ratcheting salary schedules upwards so that the famale jobs are paid a much as the male ones is the remedy proposed by advocates of comparable worth.

Thus, in a case pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, it has been alleged that university teachers n the "female" fields of nursing, dental hygiene, secretarial science, business education and teacher education should be paid as well as those in the "male" fields of medicine, dentistry, business administration and education administration.

Congress has never passed a law mandating comparable worth in any form or fashion, yet the federal judiciary, as in the Michigan and Oregon examples, is being invited to read comparable worth into Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states that it is unlawful for an employer "to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation . . . because of such individual's sex." A comparable worth interpretation of Title VII, however, does not square with the intent of the law.

Title VII can be understood only in light of the Equal Pay Act of 1963. In passing that law, Congress thoroughly considered and specifically rejected proposals covering jobs of a "comparableacter. Instead, Congress drew a circle around the one area where discriminatory treatment could reasonably be presumed -- men and women doing the same work but receiving unequal pay -- and outlawed such differentials.

The Equal Pay Act was just that -- a guarantee that equal work would be equally compensated. There is nothing in the record to suggest that this sense of Congress changed during the subsequent months as it debated and passed into law Title VII.

So far, only one federal court, in the Western District of Washington, has gone beyond the intent of Title VII by adopting a comparable worth interpretation. Last year, in a much- discussed case brought by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes against the State of Washington, that court found the state liable for sex-biased pay discrimination against women under Title VII. The court ordered the state to increase the salaries of all employes, male and female, in jobs held mostly by women, to levels commensurate with their ratin in a state-sponsored comparable worth study conducted in 1973.

The AFSCME case is now pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which in 1984 rejected a comparable worth claim by the predominately female nursing faculty of the University of Washington. The Supreme Court decided not to review this decision, thus leaving interpretation of the law, for the moment, in the hands of the circuit courts of appeals. To date, the six courts of appeals to rule on comparable worth claims have unanimously rejected them.

Not only is comparable worth not the law, it plainly shouldn't be. Comparable worth would reverse the long overdue trend toward more cost-efficient government and freer labor markets. In the public sector, comparable worth would only further reduce, if not eliminate altogether, the influence of the marketplace on determining the pay of civil servants. Applied to the private sector, comparable worth would dramatically increase government influence upon the workings of the marketplace by disrupting the current mixed system of supply and demand (including the effects of competition from abroad), collective bargaining contracts and state and federal rules (such as the minimum- wage law) that determine private sector pay.

Comparable worth is plainly a very bureaucractic and most expensive proposition. At the federal level, no existing bureaucracy has the time or manpower even to attempt an implementation of comparable worth. A new agency would have to be created, and it would dictate "comparability" standards, order subsequent adjustments and oversee the implementation of every jot and tittle of its various commands. The regulation comparable worth implies for the private sector would exceed the scope and influence of any it currently experiences.

In the public sector, comparable worth costs would be passed on to the already overburdened taxpayers; if the decision in the AFSCME case is not reversed, the cost to the state of Washington (read: Washington taxpayers) is reliably estimated to be $400 million in the first year of implementation and $60 million ever year thereafter. In the private sector, comparable worth costs also would be passed on to the taxpayers in the form of higher prices.

This might not be the only cost. With the price of certain types of labor increased by government fiat, employers might well decide to buy less of that labor. Employment in areas affected by comparable worth decisions would then decline, as would total output. The darkness one sees at the end of the comparable worth tunnel is economic decline.

No one can seriously consider comparable worth without reflecting on the practical problems it would raise. A comparable worth bureaucracy -- made up of governmnt officials, lawyers and judges -- would determine which jobs are, in effect, "male" and which "female." But is a "male" or "female" job one in which 70 percent of those performing the job are men or women, as one comparable worth proponent has said? Why not 80 percent, as another comparable worth study concludes? For that matter, why not 90? Why not 60? Or 69, or 71? And what happens when, whatever percentage is chosen, it begins to slip? Is the job in quetion still a "male" or "female" job?

Further, there is the problem of figuring out the "worth" of each job. How does one say which job is worth more or less than another one? Obviously, one person's criteria for job "worthiness" may not be another's. And it is hardly clear how the criteria of any person who has the task of determining the value of jobs should be evaluated. Not only the criteria, but also the weight assigned to each criterion, are subjective matters.

Most fundamentally, there is the question of who is to make all of these determinations. Who is to say which jobs are "male" or "female," which jobs are "worth" more than others, how many points to assign to this job as opposed to that one and how then to evaluate the points assigned? And why should anyone want to give these arbitrary tasks to government bureaucracies? Who is government to say that administrative assistants and truck drivers, or nurses and mechanics, should be paid the same? It is not clear that government would determine pay scales in a more competent manner than now exists. Moreover, only the naive could suppose that comparable worth bureaucracies would be unaffected by political considerations as they assign points and evaluate jobs.

Comparable worth is an idea rich in irony. Advanced in the name of women's equality, it would require government's labeling some jobs as "male" and others as "female." Furthermore, those who would benefit from comparable worth would be, as the Washington state case illustrates, not only the females who fill "female" jobs, but also the males in those jobs. Comparable worth, whatever else may be said against it, is overinclusive in terms of those who would benefit from it.

There is also the irony that comparable worth, if implemented, would reduce the incentives for women to move out of jobs traditionally held by their sex into those long held by men.

The increased pay in traditionally female jobs would encourage women to stay in those jobs and could lead to an oversupply of workers for certain occupations.

A case pending in federal court in Illinois demonstrates the far-from- unreasonable fear of some women that comparable worth could even reduce the salaries paid to women who move into "male" occupations. In a complaint brought by the American Nurses Association and others against the state of Illinois, it is alleged that the state uses "a sex- biased system of pay and classification which results in and perpetuates discrimination in compensation" against those employed in occupations historically held mostly by women, such as nursing, health technician, switchboard operator and clerk typist. The complaint cites an official study commissioned by the state concluding that "female" jobs possess greater value than certain "male" jobs and are paid less. For example, the study rated nurse IV above electrician, but the nursing job pays an average monthly salary of $2,104 and the electrician job paid $2,826.

It is obvious, however, that many women in Illinois disagree with this study and indeed with the whole idea of comparable worth. Fifteen women, all of whom hold jobs traditionally performed by men, have recently asked the court for permission to join the state as defendants. According to the state's comparable worth study, the jobs these women hold -- as correctional officers, a security officer, an accountant and an office manager -- should be, in effect, devalued. These women believe that if the decision in this case requires the implementation of the comparable worth study, their pay checks will be smaller.

In their filing with the court these 15 women deny "that they are beneficiaries of sex discrimination, or are overpaid . . . . On the contrary, any favorable salary positions they enjoy relative to (the plaintiffs) are the result of special skill, hard work and the nondiscriminatory forces of supply and demand."

The group of women also states "a direct interest" in preserving the present system of compensation, which "rewards them for their special skills; their performance of particularly difficult, dangerous or unpleasant work, and their willingness to challenge stereotypes and perform jobs traditionally occupied by males."

These Illinois women represent the healthy trend of the past two decades, during which the work force has become more and more integrated, with women making dramatic inroads into jobs traditionally held by men. One reason for this trend, no doubt, is the very willingness of many women to "challenge stereotypes and perform jobs traditionally occupied by males."

Surely there is no reason to change this trend by jettisoning current public policy in favor of comparable worth. Aggressive enforcement of Title VII to ensure women equal employment opportunties, combined with vigorous enforcement of the Equal Pay Act, remains the best means of securing the great goal of equal employment opportunity and equitable employer treatment for all Americans, regardless of sex.