Calif. Prevailing Wage Law Applied to Recycling Plant Employees

January 4, 2019
Calif. Prevailing Wage Law Applied to Recycling Plant Employees

California's prevailing wage law requires that all workers employed on "public works"—generally, construction projects—be paid at least as much as is generally paid for the performance of similar work in the same geographic area. A California appellate court has ruled that this law was not limited to construction projects and applied to workers who sorted recyclable materials at two publicly owned and operated recycling facilities.

The plaintiffs, who worked as sorters, sued a staffing company that provided employees to the two facilities under contracts with Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, alleging, among other claims, that the defendant had failed to pay them the prevailing wage.

The trial court granted the staffing company's motion to dismiss the prevailing wage claims, ruling that the work done by the plaintiffs did not come within the prevailing wage law's definition of "public works" because it was not construction work. The plaintiffs appealed.

The appellate court reversed the trial court's decision. One provision of the prevailing wage law defines public works as "construction, alteration, demolition, installation or repair work done under contract and paid for in whole or in part out of public funds." But this is not the only definition in the statute, the court said.

[SHRM members-only toolkitComplying with California Wage Payment and Hours of Work Laws]

Another provision further defines public works as work done for "irrigation, utility, reclamation, and improvement districts, and other districts of this type." The recyclable sorting work here was done for a county sanitation district, and so the work at issue fell within this second statutory definition and the plaintiffs were entitled to receive the prevailing wage, the court said.

The court rejected the defendant's claim that the two provisions must be read together and that, therefore, even work done for county districts must be construction work to qualify for prevailing wage payments.

At one point, the state's prevailing wage law limited its definition of public works to construction, but this changed in 1937 when the state legislature broadened the definition.

Kaanaana v. Barrett Business Services Inc., Calif. Ct. App., No. B276420 (Nov. 30, 2018).

Professional Pointer: In California, the rules governing which projects are public works covered by the prevailing wage law are complex and rapidly changing. An employer should consider consulting with counsel before making a determination that employees performing work under a contract between the employer and a state or local government entity are not entitled to the prevailing wage.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md. 


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