PAY DISPUTES are best settled at the bargaining table, and that's where the big Washington state comparable-worth case is headed. Instead of dealing with judicially ordered payments made on a timetable handed down from the bench, both parties will sit down and work out an agreement that takes into account available funds and realistic timetables for accomplishing their objectives.

A federal law already prohibits unequal pay for the same job; comparable-worth theorists contend that it is also illegal to discriminate between males' and females' jobs that are different but are comparable in terms of skills, education, responsibility and working conditions. The Washington case testing this theory began more than 10 years ago when state officials commissioned a study to determine whether men and women in comparable state jobs were being treated equally. The hired consultant found that they were not, and when the state failed to restructure wage levels, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees sued. In September 1983, a U.S. District Court judge found for the union and ordered immediate payment of four years' back wages to workers in predominantly female job categories. This award would have cost the state of Washington between $800 million and $1 billion.

If the union is sustained on appeal, the state's citizens will face a huge tax increase to pay the awards. If the state wins, employees lose not only money but a decision in their favor on the merits of the comparable-worth theory. Instead of taking those risks, the parties have wisely agreed to try to settle the suit.

The state legislature helped in two important ways. First, it enacted legislation to restructure pay over the next 10 years and appropriated $1.5 million for the first year. In so doing, the state acknowledged sex-based pay disparity and took the first steps toward correcting it. Second, the legislature approved spending $42 million to settle the suit, contingent upon the parties' reaching an agreement before the end of the year. AFSCME, which always prefers to settle this issue at the bargaining table rather than in court, readily agreed to negotiate.

There is little doubt that many jobs traditionally held by women have been less well paid than comparable jobs held by men. The reasons include cultural attitudes, the interruption of careers to accommodate children, the desire for more flexible work schedules and, of course, discrimination. The government cannot set nationwide pay standards, and judges are ill-equipped to devise wage schedules for an entire industry or state. These matters are best settled, as they now will be in the Washington case, by workers and employers themselves.