If you work in certain industries in New Jersey, your pay may be regulated by the New Jersey Prevailing Wage Act (PWA). This law establishes a “prevailing wage level,” or set wage rate, for workers engaged in construction, maintenance, and other services for many New Jersey public works projects. If the PWA applies to your position and your employer isn’t complying with its requirements, you may have a legal claim.
What Is the Prevailing Wage Act?
New Jersey passed the Prevailing Wage Act to protect construction workers, tradespeople, and laborers (and their employers) from the effects of cutthroat competition on certain public projects. Without the PWA, competition to be the lowest bidder on projects can result in wage levels that are so low that they negatively impact the productivity and well-being of workers and are detrimental the public at large.
How Do I Know if the Prevailing Rate Applies to Me?
Many contracts for the construction, restoration, or maintenance of public works are subject to the requirements of the PWA. It applies to public projects that are valued at or above the current threshold amounts and are funded in whole or in part with the funds of a public body. Contracts that are awarded directly by municipal government to a contractor or that are done on property or premises owned entirely by a public body (or leased or to be leased by the municipality) are eligible if they are valued at or above $16,263. (This rate is effective July 1, 2019; according to the statute, the value is adjusted every five years.) The threshold is only $2,000 for other publicly funded projects, including those funded by boards of education and municipal utility authorities.
If a project is subject to the PWA, the contractor and subcontractors who perform work must post a notice in a prominent, accessible place at the worksite or the site where wages are distributed. This notice must display the rates for each craft and classification and the dates of any changes thereto.
What Am I Entitled to Under the PWA?
The PWA not only sets base pay rates for workers but also ensures that workers are appropriately compensated for overtime, weekend work, work performed on legal holidays, and shift differentials. It also encourages employers to provide fringe benefits like medical coverage, dental coverage, pension or retirement plans, paid time off (vacation, holidays, sick days), and life insurance by providing set-offs for these benefits.
The actual rates of pay (including both wages and fringe benefits) vary depending on the county where the work is performed, the type of trade, and the experience of the tradesperson. These rates vary so much because they are the result of collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) that have been negotiated by the unions and representatives for each particular craft or trade in each geographic area. Frequent changes in laws and constant renegotiations in union contracts cause the rates to fluctuate frequently. To figure out what rate you are entitled to, refer to the tables reflecting the current prevailing wages for each occupation and location, which are updated and published regularlyby the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
What If I Have Been Improperly Paid?
Although the PWA can be complicated, the only way to protect your rights is to understand what rate applies to you and monitor your payroll records closely. Any worker who believes they have been improperly paid under the PWA is entitled to file a claim with the New Jersey Division of Wage and Hour Compliance. This state agency updates and distributes the prevailing wage rate charts, performs routine site inspections of public construction projects, implements fines and penalties to offenders, and bars contractors who it determines to be “serious” offenders from bidding or working on public works projects for up to three years. Violations of the PWA can result in significant fines against the contractor (up to $1,000 per incident); for violations that the agency determines are willful and/or continued, a contractor can face imprisonment for up to 90 days.
A complaint for wage underpayment must be filed within two years of the date of the alleged violation. While you do not need an attorney to file a claim, an experienced employment attorney can help make sure you do so correctly, completely, and within the prescribed time limits.
If your complaint is not decided in your favor, you may still be able to pursue a Wage Collection proceeding. This is a formal dispute resolution process that can settle claims between employers and employees for wage disputes up to $30,000. Employers and employees are sworn in and required to provide testimony and present evidence to prove their claim; they are permitted to retain an attorney to represent them during the proceeding.
What If I Wasn’t Paid the Prevailing Wage?
If you are a worker protected by the PWA and you believe haven’t been paid what you deserve, you should consult with an experienced New Jersey employment attorney. The New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) protects workers who file wage claims, including those for underpayment of wages under the PWA. CEPA prohibits an employer from taking any adverse employment action, including demotion or termination, against a worker as a result of reporting an alleged wage violation. An attorney can determine whether you have legal or administrative claims and help you decide the best ways to recover the compensation you deserve.
If you believe you have been the victim of wage discrimination, underpayment, wrongful termination, or retaliation, contact the Mark Law Firmtoday for an appointment with one of our experienced employment lawyers.
 “Prevailing Wage Rates on Construction-Related Public Works Projects—General Information.” State of New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, n.d. Accessed 27 Jul 2017.
 N.J.S.A. 34:11-56.34.
 N.J.S.A. 34:11-56.56.