The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled yesterday that it will not act on behalf of women who allege discrimination in pay on the basis of "comparable worth."
The Reagan administration has shown little sympathy for "comparable worth" -- the idea that low-paying, traditionally female jobs should be upgraded to the salary level of jobs of comparable skill, responsibility and difficulty that are predominantly held by men. The EEOC's decision officially closes a major avenue of federal redress, although several states are acting on their own.
"We are convinced that Congress never authorized the government to take on wholesale restructuring of wages that were set by non-sex-based decisions of employers -- by collective bargaining -- or by the marketplace," said EEOC Chairman Clarence Thomas.
The concept of comparable worth is not recognized under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws discrimination in pay on the basis of gender, Thomas said.
"We found that sole reliance on a comparison of the intrinsic value of dissimilar jobs -- which command different wages in the market -- does not provide a violation of Title VII," he said.
The EEOC had a backlog of about 266 cases based on comparable worth before yesterday's decision. Women involved in the cases and others seeking to bring pay-discrimination suits based on comparable worth will now have to seek redress through the courts.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce hailed the decision as "a positive step toward reason, logic and fairness in the face of an extremely controversial and emotional debate."
Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said: "The commission's actions are just the most recent by the administration seeking to choke off the nationwide movement toward remedying sex-based wage discrimination for millions of working women . . . ."
John J. Sweeney, president of Service Employees International Union, said: "This decision will force us to the courts to achieve fair wages for women and minority workers in this country . . . . The actions of the EEOC and this administration have stalled the efforts of working women to achieve nondiscriminatory wages."
The EEOC's decision came in a case brought by female employes of a municipal housing agency, reportedly in Rockford, Ill. The women charged that the housing agency wrongly paid its predominantly female administrative staff less than its mostly male janitorial staff.
The EEOC found that, although there were differences in pay between the jobs, there is no evidence that the difference was due to gender or that the housing authority "steered women away from maintenance positions or otherwise limited women's access to those jobs."
In its decision, the EEOC also said the women had not proved that they were doing jobs "similar in skill, effort, responsiblity and working conditions" -- or the same jobs -- which would have opened the way for the EEOC to act under the Equal Pay Act requiring equal pay for equal work.
The commission cited several court cases as precedents for its decision not to recognize comparable worth as a basis for acting on behalf of people alleging job discrimination.
About a half-dozen states, under pressure from female employes and from unions, have adopted comparable worth plans intended to raise the wages of many female employes. In addition, two dozen other states have completed studies on comparable worth.
Los Angeles last month approved a $12 million contract raising the salaries of low-paying, traditionally female jobs to the pay level of "comparable" male-dominated positions.
The EEOC's decision is in line with an April ruling by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission rejecting the idea of comparable worth. The commission urged Congress and other federal agencies to do the same.
The Civil Rights Commission said that although women, on average, earn about 40 percent less than men, the difference is attributable to merit, seniority, collective bargaining, "the role women play in the family generally which affects their choices, jobs, career expectations" and the fact that women do more part-time work than men.