N.Y. Court of Appeals Upholds Labor Department's Interpretation of Prevailing Wage Rules

If you work on a public works project–that is, a construction project for a state or local government–you may be covered by New York's prevailing wage law. The prevailing wage is a complex schedule of wage hour rules that specify how different skilled tradespeople must be paid for their labor. Prevailing wages differ by city or county and set not only how much workers must be paid, but also what fringe benefits–overtime pay, holidays–they are entitled to.

The New York Department of Labor is responsible for setting the prevailing wage schedule. This includes classifying work by assigning individual tasks to a particular trade–e.g., plumbers, electricians, etc. Within each trade, the Department determines two types of prevailing wage rates–one for journeyworkers and a second for apprentices.

Court: Apprentices Limited to Tasks in Apprenticeship Programs

The New York Court of Appeals recently addressed the Department's policies regarding the classification of apprentices. A labor union representing glaziers–the skilled tradesmen who cut, install, and remove glass–and several other interested parties alleged the Department interpreted the prevailing wage law too narrowly. Specifically, the Department's regulations state that a worker is only qualified as an apprentice if he or she is performing tasks that is “the subject of the apprenticeship program in which they are enrolled.”

For example, the plaintiffs here noted that glazier apprentices often perform tasks that are classified by the Department as “ironwork.” Under the Department's interpretation of the law, these apprentices must be paid at the higher journeyworker rate for ironwork as their apprentice program is limited to glaziers. The union objected to this interpretation, as many contractors will not hire apprentice glaziers for public works projects unless they are strictly paid at the apprentice rates.

As the Court of Appeals explained in its opinion, the underlying statute is “ambiguous.” The law says an apprentice must be “registered, individually, under a bona fide program registered with the” Department. The Department interprets this requirement to mean the apprentice must only perform tasks within the scope of his or her apprenticeship program to qualify for the lower apprentice rates. The Court of Appeals held that the Department's interpretation is entitled to deference, given the underlying ambiguity of the statute and the “significant rationale” for the restriction itself. Indeed, the Court noted one of the main purposes of the prevailing wage law was to “prevent employers from cutting standards of construction work by hiring an excessive number of unskilled employees.” It is therefore logical to assume that employers can not be allowed to dilute standards “by hiring apprentices to perform tasks in trades for which they are not training.”

Is Your Employer Underpaying You?

The prevailing wage schedule is just one of many state and local laws governing how employers must compensate workers. If you have reason to suspect your employer is underpaying you and not following the law, you should speak with a qualified New York wage and overtime hour attorney right away. Contact the Law Offices of Nisar Law Group, P.C., to speak with a lawyer today.