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It is a difficult time for Wisconsin workers, between Governor Walker’s 2015 state budget proposal and the Wisconsin Legislature’s introduction of a fast-tracked right-to-work law. We’ve noticed many provisions that could have a huge impact on workers, such as the Governor’s proposed changes to Wisconsin’s historic worker’s compensation law. In the same vein, a bill introduced by Assembly Republicans that seeks to wipe out Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law could have a devastating effect on Wisconsin’s working families.

Prevailing wage, or the “white sheet rate,” is a set wage rate that must be paid to individuals employed on public works projects. Wage rates differ for each trade or occupation on the project. A prevailing wage includes a basic hourly rate of pay plus hourly contributions for health insurance, vacation, pension, and other economic benefits. Fringe benefits are not required, but if an employer does not provide them, the wages must be equal to the total prevailing wage rate specified.

PURPOSE OF PREVAILING WAGE LAWS

Prevailing wage laws require contractors on public works contracts to pay wages representative of the local wages in the area to their employees. This prevents contractors from underbidding each other in order to get government contracts, because when trying to cut costs, the wages paid to workers are one of the first targets.

Wisconsin’s first prevailing wage law was enacted in 1933. The federal government has a similar law, called the Davis-Bacon Act, which was enacted in 1931. These laws work to protect workers on public works projects.

Prevailing wage laws apply when a state or local government solicits bids for a public works project that exceeds a certain dollar amount. The project must get a “prevailing wage determination” from the Department of Workforce Development, which sets the minimum hourly wage and fringe benefits that must be paid to employees working on the project. Every job position, such as laborer, painter, or electrician, has a wage set by the DWD based on the prevailing wage in the area. For more information on the DWD’s process, see their website.

Wisconsin law provides employees with legal recourse when employees are not paid the prevailing wage. If a contractor or sub-contractor fails to pay the correct prevailing wage to an employee, or fails to pay overtime wages, an employee can take that contractor to court to recover their unpaid wages, plus liquidated damages of 100% of the unpaid wages and attorney’s fees and costs. Wis. Stat. 103.49(6m).

ARE YOU BEING PAID THE CORRECT PREVAILING WAGE?

The difficulty for employees on prevailing wage projects is figuring out whether they are being paid the correct wage. Contractors must post the prevailing wage rate determinations in at least one conspicuous and easily accessible place on the site of the project. This determination is commonly called the “white sheet.” If you are working on a public works project, you should have access to this information.

One common way that prevailing wage laws are violated is by mis-classifying employees. For example, an employee may be doing welding work but paid as a laborer. An employee can figure this out by looking at their pay stubs, which should state the job title for their work. Ask yourself these questions:

1. Is this job title accurate? Does the title describe the work I was performing?
2. Is the wage rate on my pay stub equal to the wage rate shown on the posted white sheet?

Employees on prevailing wage projects can protect themselves from possible legal violations by keeping their own records of work performed. Keep a log of what you did, on what project, and for how many hours. That way, if there is a discrepancy later, you will have your own records to support a possible claim for unpaid wages.

WHY DOES THE PREVAILING WAGE STILL MATTER?

The Wisconsin Assembly members seeking to wipe out Wisconsin’s prevailing wage laws claim that doing so will save local governments money on public works projects by lowering costs. But it will also have a huge impact on Wisconsin’s workers. Prevailing wage laws are an important protection for the people who make their living in the construction industry. These laws prevent contractors from slashing the wages of workers in order to secure contracts. And when workers are paid better wages, those wages support the overall economy of their communities. Prevailing wages laws are important protections that have existed decades for a reason.

HAWKS QUINDEL ATTORNEYS CAN HELP PROTECT YOUR RIGHTS

Prevailing wage laws are complex, and it can be difficult to determine whether you are being paid correctly. The attorneys at Hawks Quindel have experience in prevailing wage law and other wage and hour violations. If you are concerned that you are being paid incorrectly, contact our offices today for a free consult.

Caitlin Madden

Associate at Hawks Quindel, S.C.
Caitlin Madden is an associate attorney in Hawks Quindel’s Madison, Wisconsin office, where she represents employees in wage and hour litigation and employment discrimination. A former elementary school teacher, she is passionate about using the law to help individuals who are facing overwhelming challenges.