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What is Prevailing Wage?

Legal content fact checked by Charles E. Joseph

Are you working on a publicly funded project? You might be owed the prevailing wage – which can be over $100 an hour with benefits.

Prevailing wage laws protect millions of workers. An employment lawyer can help you recover unpaid wages and benefits. prevailing wage graphic

What is Prevailing Wage?

What does prevailing wage mean? Prevailing wages are the minimum rates workers must earn on government-funded public works and maintenance jobs. Contractors receive different rates based on the type of work and location. 

The purpose of the prevailing wage is that the government wants to make sure that all workers on government-funded projects are paid fairly. Thus, workers for contractors and subcontractors on these projects must be paid a close approximation to union wages.

In addition to federal prevailing wage laws, cities and states also enforce rules to make sure workers receive fair compensation. 

The U.S. General Services Administration lists federal prevailing wage rates by trade at Wage Determinations

How Does Prevailing Wage Work?

If you’re hired on a prevailing wage job, you must receive at least the prevailing hourly rate plus benefits. 

For example, an electrician in New York might qualify for a prevailing rate of $60 per hour. They must also receive prevailing fringe benefits of $50 per hour. The electrician must either receive benefits worth $50 an hour or an additional $50 in hourly pay on top of their wages.

Laborers, construction workers, maintenance workers, and even some food service workers must receive the prevailing wage for their job title and location.

Prevailing Wage Jobs

What are the most common prevailing wage jobs? Laborers, journeymen, and teamsters are often owed the prevailing rate for their work. 

Common job titles include:

  • Carpenter
  • Electrician
  • Boilermaker
  • Bricklayer
  • Construction Engineer
  • Glazier
  • Laborer
  • Landscaper
  • Painter
  • Plumber
  • Welder

In some states, maintenance and building service workers also qualify for prevailing wages. For example, in New York State, janitors, doorpersons, elevator operators, and porters working in qualifying buildings must receive the prevailing rate.

New York Prevailing Wage Laws

New York has some of the strongest prevailing wage laws in the country. Construction workers, building service employees, and food or temporary office services workers may qualify, depending on the location and contract.

NY Prevailing Wage

Contractors and subcontractors on public work contracts in New York State must receive the prevailing rate plus fringe benefits. 

The NY prevailing wage rate depends on several factors: the type of work, the county, and whether the worker receives benefits. For example, a boilermaker in Nassau County must receive $67.38 per hour in 2024, plus $26.85 or fringe benefits equivalent to that amount. 

The New York State wage database lists the most current rates.

NYC Prevailing Wage

New York City also has its own prevailing wage laws. These laws cover building services, food services, and temporary office workers in addition to construction workers.

For example, administrative assistants on temporary contracts at government agencies must receive at least $47.92 in wages and benefits. Porters at office buildings must earn $44.24. 

Only certain workers qualify. For example, the building services prevailing wages apply to certain residential buildings that qualify for a property tax exemption, businesses that receive city financial assistance, and office space leased to city agencies.

The city continues to strengthen its prevailing wage requirements. For example, after 2020, new construction projects with at least 120 units that receive over $1 million in city financial assistance must pay at least the prevailing rate for building service employees.

Prevailing Wage Violations

Government agencies make a prevailing wage determination for job titles and locations. But what if you don’t receive the prevailing wage?

The most common prevailing wage violations include paying less than the prevailing rate or failing to pay fringe benefits.

Contractors may also pay subcontractors less than the prevailing rate to pocket the cash and stiff laborers. 

You can sue for back pay if you were owed the prevailing wage and did not receive it.

Workers on federally funded public works projects must receive either the federal or state prevailing wage, whichever is higher. If you receive the lower rate, you can sue for back pay.

Do You Qualify for Prevailing Wage?

It can be complicated to know whether you should receive the prevailing wage.

In New York City, you may qualify if:

  • You’re a construction worker on any NYC public work project, including in streets, public schools, subway stations, parks, etc.
  • You’re a building services worker at any city building, including residential buildings that qualify for city tax exemptions.
  • You work on street excavations for a utility project.
  • You work in food services or temporary office services at a city agency.

The prevailing wage is a minimum, not a cap. You should also receive 1.5 times your prevailing rate for overtime hours.

If your employer violated these laws, you may be owed significant back pay. An employment lawyer can help you determine whether you have a case.

Reach out to employment lawyer Charles Joseph today to see if you have a prevailing wage case. 

Frequently Asked Questions about Prevailing Wage

What is prevailing wage?

A prevailing wage is the minimum hourly rate for workers on certain government-funded contracts. The most common prevailing wage jobs are in construction. 

The federal government sets prevailing wages for federally funded projects. Cities and states can also set a prevailing rate for projects they fund. 

Prevailing wages also include benefits. 

What does prevailing wage mean?

The prevailing wage sets minimum rates for employees on public works projects.

This rate is based on the average union wage for workers in the same field and area. For example, if union carpenters in New York City earn an average of $55 per hour, the city can make $55 per hour the prevailing rate for contracts that receive city funding. 

Congress passed the first prevailing wage law, the Davis-Bacon Act, in 1931 during the Great Depression. Setting a prevailing rate prevents public works projects from paying less than local union wages, which helps workers.

What’s the difference between prevailing wage and minimum wage?

Wage laws set the minimum that employers can pay workers. But the prevailing wage is significantly higher than the minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. In New York State, the minimum wage hit $15 per hour in 2024. Both are significantly lower than the prevailing rate for government contractors. 

In New York City, for example, many laborers receive prevailing wages plus supplemental benefits of over $100 per hour.

What is a prevailing wage job?

Prevailing wage jobs include construction jobs like carpenter, electrician, plumber, and welder. Other workers on government-funded projects may also qualify, including landscapers, construction engineers, glaziers, and bricklayers. 

In some areas, building services workers, temporary office workers, and food service workers also qualify for prevailing wages.

Public works projects and other government-funded work may qualify for prevailing rates. That can include projects that receive tax incentives, grants, or government loans. 

What’s the prevailing wage in NY?

The prevailing NY wage depends on your profession. New York’s Department of Labor sets the prevailing wage by county and job title. 

Look up current rates in the New York State database. In New York City, the Wage Schedule lists current rates.

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Legal content fact checked by Charles E. Joseph

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