If you’re an hourly worker in New Jersey, you’re no doubt already aware that the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law requires your employer to pay you the legal minimum wage and overtime rates of pay. However, there’s another state law that provides additional wage and hour protections for hourly workers employed on public work projects: the New Jersey Prevailing Wage Act (“NJPA”) (N.J.S.A. 34:11-56.25 et seq.).
Simply put, the NJPWA demands that certain categories of hourly employees who work on “public work” projects be paid a “prevailing” minimum wage that is set by the state of New Jersey’s Department of Labor. The NJPWA is a very detailed and complicated law, but its general gist and intent is to ensure that employees on public work projects are paid the going union rate for their labor.
What Kind of “Public Work” Projects Qualify for NJPWA Protection?
The NJPWA defines a “public work” as any “construction, reconstruction, demolition, alteration or repair work, or maintenance work including painting and decorating, done under contract and paid for in whole or in part out of the funds of the public body.” Practically speaking, this includes:
- Work on contracts awarded directly by municipalities, where the contract is valued at $16,263 or greater (as of 2019);
- Work on contracts awarded directly by municipal utilities, school boards of education, or other public bodies (like state agencies), where the contract is valued at $2,000 or greater (as of 2019).
Additional covered “public work” projects include:
- Work on a property or premises that is owned by a public body at the time of the contract, even if that public body isn’t a party to the contract, and even if the contract is not paid for with public funds; and
- Work undertaken with the involvement of certain specified New Jersey entities, such as the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
Obviously, the foregoing encompasses a wide array of projects, including road or bridge construction and repair, school or hospital building contracts, and some utilities work.
What Types of Hourly Workers are Covered?
Broadly speaking, the Act covers “laborers, craftsmen and apprentices” on public work projects. The Act then goes on to list many specific categories of workers within its coverage. If you are wondering if you qualify for NJPWA protection, it’s best to call the New Jersey Department of Labor or an attorney to verify. However, generally most workers typically associated with construction, demolition or maintenance projects are covered, including:
- Power/Heavy Equipment Operators
So What’s The “Prevailing Wage”?
It depends on what type of employee you are, and where you work. The New Jersey Department of Labor sets the prevailing wages for each category of employee, by county, and by level of expertise (i.e., journeyman versus foreman). Roughly, these prevailing wages tend to track the wages paid to union workers in the same county, for comparable work. However, because they are county-specific, please note that the prevailing wage for, say, a roofer in Gloucester County may well be different than for one in Bergen County.
If you are employed on a public work project under the NJPWA, then your employer is required to post a list of the current and appropriate prevailing wages for your project at the work site.
What If My Employer Fails to Pay My Prevailing Wage?
Unfortunately, sometimes employers represent that they are paying the prevailing wage to the public bodies they contract with, invoice those public bodies for labor at the prevailing wage rate, then stiff their workers and pocket the difference.
If your employer fails to pay you at least the prevailing wage for which you qualify, you may file an administrative complaint with the New Jersey Department of Labor. Consult the agency’s website to download and submit the appropriate forms. The Department of Labor will then conduct an investigation. If your employer is found in violation of the NJPWA, they may be subject to fines and penalties.
Additionally, you may file a court claim against your employer under the NJPWA, to recover the wages you were entitled to under the Act. Since the litigation process is lengthy and contentious, you will want to discuss this option carefully with an attorney.
However, whether you file an administrative complaint, a court claim, or both, the following advice applies:
- To the best of your ability, retain payroll stubs, service invoices, or other records of your hours spent performing labor for the public work site.
- Sometimes workers perform multiple jobs on public work projects – for instance, they may do masonry and carpentry, or they start as an apprentice electrician at the beginning of the project but progress to a journeyman by the end. In this case, try to retain records that distinguish what type or work you were doing and when, since different job and seniority classifications demand different pay.
There are a lot of intricacies to the NJPWA that can be difficult to navigate on your own. If you believe you have been underpaid in violation of the prevailing wage law, call our offices today for a free consultation.