Under the law in New York and New Jersey contractors and sub-contractors who perform public works projects must pay their workers the “prevailing wage” or face being barred from bidding on such projects in the future. They could even be sued by their employees for unpaid wages. Contractors must take care to obey the law because cutting corners to save money may cost more in the end. Public works projects include any work on buildings or structures owned by the Federal or State government, such as schools, offices, bridges and roads. In order to protect workers, the law requires such contractors to pay union-type wages for all government jobs.
Some contractors are reluctant to pay the prevailing wages because such wages are high. The prevailing wage for an asbestos worker in New York City in 2013-2014 was $40.95. In addition, the contractor is also required to pay an additional $8.25 for benefits, so that the total amount that a contractor would have to pay an asbestos worker on a government job in the city is $49.20 per hour. Of course, overtime (more than 8 hours per day) and weekend and holiday wages run at time and a half or even double time for some occupations. Roofers must be paid $39.00 per hour plus benefits in the city. Wages are similarly high in New Jersey.
In addition, all contractors on government jobs must submit proof that they are bonded by a reputable bonding company. A bond is similar to insurance in that the bonding company insures sub-contractors, the state, and the workers themselves that the contractor will perform properly on the job. If the contractor fails to pay his workers the prevailing wage as required by law, the bonding company is responsible. This means that even if the contractor goes out of business, the bonding company may still be on the hook for unpaid wages.
Workers may seek to recover from their employers and the bonding company the difference between the prevailing wage and what they were actually paid, plus attorney’s fees. My office once handled a case in which we represented 44 roofing workers who were not paid prevailing wages by their employer. That case later settled for a substantial amount being paid by the contractor and the bonding companies. The contractor later went out of business. We also defend contractors who have been sued by their workers.
The prevailing wage can be quite steep, but the penalties to contractors for failing to obey the law is even steeper.
Some contractors may try to get around paying the prevailing wage. They do this in lots of different ways. Sometimes through threats, coercion or intimidation, implying that if the worker complains, he might not have a job at all. This is also illegal. Sometimes they play games with accounting, hours and rates, or even employ workers who they think are vulnerable, such as undocumented workers, whom the employers think will have no choice but to do the work silently. However, in this country even undocumented workers can sue for their proper wages. The law provides that any employer who fires or in any other manner discriminates against any worker because the worker has made a complaint about his employer concerning wages may institute a private lawsuit.
Not only may employees sue directly for wages due on behalf of themselves and others in a class action, but if workers are retaliated against for speaking up on their own behalf or on the behalf of others, that retaliation may also be covered under the whistle blower statute. Contractors need to beware of the consequences for trying to cut corners.
Attorney Richard A. Vrhovc, Esq., has offices in New York and New Jersey