Construction and trade employees often find that their employer has contracted them out to work on building and repair projects for public entities like schools, counties and municipalities. What those employees may not know is that, under New Jersey law, they may be legally entitled to a state-mandated rate of pay.
The New Jersey Prevailing Wage Act (“NJPWA”) covers all workers employed on a public works project valued at a certain threshold. A “public works” project is one contracted for and paid for by a public body, such as a school district. As of this post, contracts for municipalities valued above $15,444 are subject to the Act. Contracts with any other public entity need only be valued above $2,000.
The NJPWA sets minimum rates of pay for the workers on covered projects. The rates vary according to the type of worker (HVAC repair or mason, for example), seniority of worker (apprentice versus foreman), and county where the project is located. All prevailing rates of pay are set by the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (NJDOL) and published on the agency’s website. If you want to know your prevailing rate of pay for your specific contract, you must contact the public entity named in the contract (such as the School Board). By law, the wage you are owed should be spelled out in the contract itself.
What if you’re a covered worker and your employer fails to pay you the prevailing wage as required? Employers sometimes attempt to skirt the NJPWA in a variety of ways. These can include, but are not limited to:
- Mis-classifying workers in terms of job title or seniority, so as to pay a lower wage;
- Applying standard paycheck deductions like the payroll tax towards the employer’s prevailing wage contribution;
- Fraudulently adjusting timesheets/hours worked;
- Relying on workers’ ignorance of the law to simply not pay them their guaranteed rate. This often happens when workers are not fluent in English.
Fortunately, the Act provides workers with enforcement mechanisms.
- Workers who believe they are being denied the prevailing wage may file a complaint with the NJDOL. The NJDOL will investigate and, if it determines the employer is in violation, issue administrative penalties and demand that the employer pay the difference between the prevailing wage and what was actually paid workers.
- Workers may also file a civil lawsuit against the employer under the NJPWA for wages, costs and attorney’s fees. Legal protections for prevailing wage claims don’t end there, however. Workers are also protected from retaliation, as follows:
- Employers cannot terminate or otherwise retaliate against workers who complain to the employer, or to an outside public body like the NJDOL, that they are not being paid the prevailing wage. If employers do so, workers may file a claim against the employer under the NJPWA.
- These same circumstances may also give rise to a claim against the employer under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”), commonly known as the whistleblower law.
If you suspect your employer has failed to pay you the prevailing wage, the NJDOL recommends that you start by saving paystubs and all related records that document how much you were compensated.
Then, call our offices for a free consultation on whether you have a viable NJPWA claim and, if so, how to proceed.