Do you know what you are entitled to under the New Jersey Prevailing Wage Act (PWA)? If you work in construction, maintenance, and other services on New Jersey public works projects, this law may apply to you. If your employer isn’t complying with its wage requirements, you may be entitled to compensation.
Protecting Public Safety and Worker Welfare
The purpose of the Prevailing Wage Act is to protect tradespeople, construction workers, and laborers (and their employers) from the harmful effects of unregulated competition on certain public projects. Without the PWA, undercutting prices to be the lowest bidder on projects may result in low wages that hurt the productivity and well-being of workers; this can be detrimental to not only the workers themselves but also to the general public, as the quality and workmanship on these public projects can suffer.
The PWA applies to many public projects, including the construction, restoration, or maintenance of public works. It sets out base pay rates for workers as well as compensation levels for overtime, weekend work, work performed on legal holidays, and shift differentials. It also gives incentives to employers who provide fringe benefits like medical and/or dental coverage, pension or retirement plans, paid time off (e.g., vacation allowances, other holiday pay, or paid sick days), and life insurance, although it does not require these additional benefits.
How Do I Know What Compensation I Am Entitled To?
The actual rates of pay and benefits required under the PWA depend on a number of variables: the county where the work is performed, the type of trade, and the experience of the tradesperson. These rates are the result of collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) negotiated by unions and representatives for each particular trade or craft in each geographic area. Although they change frequently because of changes in laws and renegotiations of union contracts, the tables reflecting the current prevailing wages for each occupation and location are updated and published regularly by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. To protect your rights and ensure you are getting the compensation you deserve, you need to understand what rate applies to you and monitor your payroll records closely.
Related Article: Do I Need a Lawyer for My New Jersey Prevailing Wage Claim?
Compensation for PWA Violations
If you believe you have been improperly paid under the PWA, you may file a claim with the New Jersey Division of Wage and Hour Compliance. In addition to updating and distributing the prevailing wage rate charts, this agency performs routine site inspections of public construction projects, implements fines and penalties for companies that fail to comply with the law, and takes action against contractors whom it determines to be “serious” offenders by barring them from bidding or working on public works projects for up to three years. Contractors who violate the PWA can face significant criminal fines (up to $1,000 per incident) and administrative penalties (up to a maximum of $2,500 for a first violation and up to a maximum of $5,000 for each subsequent violation); if the agency determines that the violation(s) are willful and/or continued, a contractor can face up to 90 days in jail.
Once you file a claim, the agency will begin an investigation. In many cases, a wage collection proceeding will be scheduled to determine whether you are owed wages or other compensation due to underpayment and, if so, how much. In such a proceeding, the agency will hear testimony and evidence from both you and your employer. You are permitted to retain an attorney for this proceeding, as is your employer.
When the agency completes its investigation, it will notify both you and your employer of the results. If your employer owes you unpaid wages or other compensation, it may choose to issue the payment directly to you or send payment to the agency to forward to you.
While you do not need an attorney to file a claim with the Division of Wage and Hour Compliance, you may want to consult one to ensure your filing is correct, complete, and within the statutory time limits to represent your interest during the wage collection proceeding. You must file a claim for wage underpayment with the within two years of the date of the alleged violation.
What Other Options Do I Have?
You may be able to file a civil suit against your employer for compensation instead of or in addition to filing a claim with the Division of Wage and Hour Compliance. This may be preferable in higher value cases because the state agency requires you to waive any amount of your claim in excess of $50,000. In a civil action, you may recover the full amount of the prevailing wage you were owed less any amount actually paid to you by the employer along with the costs of litigation and reasonable attorney's fees. You should consult with an experienced New Jersey employment attorney to evaluate these options 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 for reporting a prevailing wage violation, consult an experienced New Jersey employment attorney. For additional information and updates regarding employment law, your rights, and how a lawyer may be able to help, subscribe to our blog.
 N.J.S.A. 34:11-56.34.
 N.J.S.A. 34:11-56.56.
 N.J.S.A. 34:11-56.40.