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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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State to make up worker pay disparity

Richard Roesler Staff writer

OLYMPIA – In a move that will mean raises and checks for thousands of current and former public employees, the state of Washington has agreed to pay $30 million to settle an “equal pay for equal work” lawsuit.

“I think it’s a pretty nice victory,” said Geneva Schroll, a Cheney woman who was the lead plaintiff. Now retired, she worked as a medical transcriptionist for 20 years at Eastern State Hospital.

“It’s finally over,” said Lisa Vasconi, a plaintiff who works as a custodial supervisor at Western State Hospital. “It feels good. We’ve accomplished something for a lot of people.”

The case challenged the fact that until recent civil service reforms, peers doing virtually identical jobs were paid different salaries depending on whether they worked for a state agency or a state college. The lead attorney for the workers, Martin Garfinkel, said that underpaid workers will get checks – some for thousands of dollars – by early 2007.

“No one’s getting 100 percent of the differences, but we believe people are going to be getting a substantial amount of what they’re owed,” Garfinkel said. His firm will take slightly more than 13 percent of the $30 million, he said.

“We think it’s a fair settlement for all involved,” said Janelle Guthrie, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Rob McKenna, whose office handled the case for the state.

Guthrie said a judge is expected to approve the settlement Friday. Notices will then be mailed to current and former employees, who can challenge the settlement before a final hearing this fall.

The settlement covers about 9,000 workers employed between October 1996 and June 30, 2005, when a new state civil service law resolved some of the disparities.

For years, workers and unions had complained about the state’s different salary schedules. Under formulas that were a relic of earlier personnel boards, wages among public employees could vary by thousands of dollars a year, depending on whether their employer was a college or a state agency.

“It was completely arbitrary where you’d fall,” said Garfinkel.

Schroll said she figured out early in her career that her counterparts in higher education were earning thousands of dollars more than she was.

“It just wasn’t fair. We worked really hard as transcriptionists, and we just didn’t think it was fair that just because someone worked at another facility, they should have a higher income than we did,” she said.

She complained to personnel officials and to her union. Finally, she picked up the phone and called Garfinkel, who took the case.

The settlement affects 159 jobs. In some cases – computer operators, dental assistants, lab helpers, sign painters, locksmiths, welders – government agencies paid more. In others – graphic designers, plumbing supervisors, cooks, laundry workers – the paychecks were bigger if the job happened to be at a college.

“It was not in our view a rational decision-making process,” Garfinkel said.

And the difference could be thousands of dollars a year. For legal assistants and security guards, for example, college jobs paid $7,000 to $10,000 a year more than government agencies did. A baker at a state agency, on the other hand, earned $3,000 to $5,000 a year more than a colleague at a college.

“I felt it was unfair,” said Vasconi. “I’m sorry that the state didn’t recognize us sooner than they did.”

The state came close to settling for less than $15 million back in 2001, when the case just covered future salaries but not back pay. State lawmakers balked at the cost, sending the case back to court for a settlement that turned out to be more than twice as much.

Under the settlement agreement, the state will pay $21 million for back pay and an additional $9 million to equalize salaries over the next five years. (State lawmakers this spring set aside $22.5 million toward the settlement.)

Some plaintiffs, including Schroll and Vasconi, will get an extra $3,000 for the time they put in on the case.

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