Prevailing wage scams steal from taxpayers

Prevailing wage scams steal from taxpayers

UnionsLastHopeJan. 11, 2013

By Katy Grimes

In what strange world do janitors get paid $45 per hour? In California, the land of the prevailing wage.

The dirty secret is that janitors often are not really getting paid $45 per hour, but the taxpayers are being charged this amount on public works projects.

Designed to help the worker, the prevailing wage was created to set a minimum hourly rate paid on all public works projects, primarily for construction workers. But the classification has been expanded and greatly abused.

One contractor’s saga

I recently met with a Southern California contractor who has owned a final construction cleanup business for more than 25 years. Final cleanup on government construction projects is always the last task in the project, and usually takes place within days of the occupants moving in, depending on the size and scope of the cleanup. The contractor said that the work he and his crews do includes cleaning the construction dust off of walls, washing and polishing floors, cleaning windows and mirrors, power-washing all surfaces, wiping down fixtures and hosing down the roof and parking lots.

He is hired as a subcontractor by large general contractors on all kinds of public works construction projects: school construction sites, police department construction, state, city and county office buildings and the like.

However, this contractor is in a pickle. There is no Department of Industrial Relations prevailing wage classification for this specific type of janitorial work. He said the going rate in the private sector for a basic janitorial job is between $10 and $15 per hour. But the Department of Industrial Relations states that the prevailing wage rate is $45 per hour for construction-project janitors.

Kevin Dayton, an expert on Project Labor Agreements and prevailing wage issues, told me that because vacuuming up the sawdust at a construction site is considered part of a construction trade, the DIR considers such work within the work assignments listed in the applicable collective bargaining agreements of the union, the Southern California District Council of Laborers.

Although there are slight differences between prevailing wage laws in Northern and Southern California, they generally are the same. Dayton explained, “For Northern California, the state-mandated total straight time hourly ‘prevailing wage’ rate for a journeyman in the Laborers Group 4 trade classification applies to the following: ‘Final cleanup on building construction projects prior to occupancy only. Cleaning and washing windows (new construction only), service landscape laborers (such as gardening, horticulture, mowing, trimming, replanting, watering during plant establishment period) on new construction.’

“Under Section 1773 of the California Labor Code and Title 8, Subchapter 3 of the California Code of Regulations, the State of California determines ‘prevailing wage’ rates in most cases by obtaining the union collective bargaining agreements for each trade in each geographical region of the state, adding up all of the payments indicated in these agreements, and declaring the total to be the ‘prevailing wage.’”

He added, “In negotiating their collective bargaining agreements, construction trade unions actually enjoy a kind of quasi-regulatory authority, because their final agreements are the basis for the state-mandated construction wage rates. They are loath to compromise this power.”

The contractor I met with said he’s in trouble because the general contractors which hire him calculate the prevailing wage rate of $45 per hour in their bids to the government, but refuse to pay him that rate. He said the general contractors have been charging the state, and ultimately the taxpayers, $45 per hour for janitors on public works projects, but only pay their subcontractors $10 to $15 per hour for their final clean up janitors.

The contractor told me the labor compliance program of the DIR is cracking down on him for not paying the prevailing wage of $45 to his employees. Then he is punished and forced to abandon final cleanup jobs, and charged back the cost of the replacement final cleanup crew, at prevailing wage rates. He said that he is not only out of a job, but he then has to pay the additional cost of the final cleanup to the general contractor.

This contractor said he follows the letter of the law in running his business, and makes sure all of his employees are paid properly and legally through his payroll service. But when a general contractor refuses to pay him the legal prevailing wage rate for his crew, he cannot pay his employees the prevailing wage rate either.

Legislation to fix this mess

Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, announced last week he has introduced legislation to address this problem, but only after trying to work directly with the Department of Industrial Relations himself to no avail. He said that the DIR will not discuss the prevailing wage classification problem, and continually referred him to the DIR website.

Hagman told me that if the prevailing wage actually worked in California, employees would be getting paid the prevailing wage. “But the system is broken and is being abused,” Hagman said. He said that the $45 per hour prevailing wage for janitorial cleanup is just one example of why public construction projects in California cost so much.

Hagman said some contractors pay the janitorial employees between $10 and $15 per hour to perform the final cleanup, then pocket the difference. “On the books it looks as if everyone is making a ton of money, but the worker is not getting the pay or benefits they are legally entitled to,” he said.

Hagman’s bill would require the Department of Industrial Relations to establish a new specific group classification for final cleanup laborers, and set appropriate prevailing wages.

Prevailing wage limits competition

A 2010 Cato Institute study concluded the purpose of prevailing wage laws was to limit competition, as well as provide significant benefits to labor unions. These policies come at the expense of taxpayers, who are forced to pay far more for projects that require prevailing wage mandates.

“Those laws mandate that on government construction projects, the labor component will not be subject to competitive bidding; rather, the wages paid to the various classes of construction labor are set by government officials at rates determined to prevail in the job site’s locality—typically, prevailing union wages,” wrote Cato author George Leef. “Labor wages and benefits are thus removed from competition by operation of law.”

Déjà vu all over again

Almost one year ago exactly, in the first committee hearing of the New Year, the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee killed two prevailing wage reform bills by Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield. AB 987 and 988 would have reformed and updated state prevailing wage laws by changing the calculations for prevailing wages, and would have allowed local governments to determine their own prevailing wage policies.

“The reforms in these bills are bold and significant steps to reviving our dire economy and putting Californians back to work,” Grove said at the hearing on the bills.  “Forcing citizens to pay amounts for projects beyond what the local free market would otherwise dictate is a misuse of taxpayer dollars.  Unfortunately, the powerful union interests benefit at this taxpayer expense.”

At wit’s end

The contractor I met with is at his wit’s end, and rapidly losing business because he can no longer play the prevailing wage game. He took matters into his own hands, and together with two other subcontractors met with several general contractors’ project managers, recording the meetings. In a video I saw posted on YouTube, the project manager admitted that, as the general contractor, he cheats on the prevailing wages for public works projects.

One of the project managers said that it doesn’t matter what the rate per hour is as long as the subcontractors provide invoices that match. “I can give you a contract, and you will have to price everything out, or you give it to me right now on a Purchase Order. You are set up as my water guy,” the general contractor told the final cleanup subcontractors.

When asked what the prevailing wage for the final cleanup workers was, the project manager just shrugged, and never answered. This happened several times with different project managers during the videos.

In another segment of the video, the general contractor’s project manager explained that the subcontractor can change his invoices as long as the general contractor is able to claim that “the bulk of the work falls into the other category.”

Changed invoices

The final clean up contractor I met with said that, for many years, he has been told to change his invoices to take out the work detail, and just include one total price.

But he said that not only is the re-invoicing illegal because it ignores the prevailing wage rate, his crews are often scheduled to work on weekends when overtime is supposed to be paid. Overtime for a final cleanup worker makes the $45 per hour rate go to $63 per hour for time-and-one-half, and $78 per hour on a Sunday.

“We are often told to come in after hours and on weekends,” he told me. “I don’t want to be followed around by the unions; I just want the industry to be cleaned up. The prevailing wage is messing up the industry.”


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  1. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 11 January, 2013, 17:38

    Hagman said some contractors pay the janitorial employees between $10 and $15 per hour to perform the final cleanup, then pocket the difference.

    Katy, you better check with more contractors, I don’t think this is correct. i have worked large gov construction jobs when i was a young kid, and as a subcontractor, and EVERYONE was paid the prevailing wage, even the subs. It simply would not make ANY sense to have a prevailing wage job for the GM and then have him subcontract 50% of it out for $10 an hour and pocket the difference.

    Check it out, i am not buying this.,

    Reply this comment
  2. CalWatchdog
    CalWatchdog Author 11 January, 2013, 17:45

    Rex, this is only one classification group, not all contractors.


    Reply this comment
  3. David Yates
    David Yates 11 January, 2013, 18:17

    Hmm, this video doesn’t seem to be staged!and I’m sure considering how corrupt our society has become it’s not that hard to believe.

    Reply this comment
  4. Kevin Dayton, Labor Issues Solutions, LLC
    Kevin Dayton, Labor Issues Solutions, LLC 11 January, 2013, 20:08

    I’m quoted in this article. Here are some additional points that readers especially interested in this issue might find valuable:

    1. In 1992, the California Supreme Court (in Lusardi Construction Co. v. Aubry) summarized the purpose of the state’s prevailing wage laws. Notice how this bizarre system is meant to benefit unions and establish a wage rate that relates to the circumstances of public employees:

    “The overall purpose of the prevailing wage law, as noted earlier, is to benefit and protect employees on public works projects. This general objective subsumes within it a number of specific goals: to protect employees from substandard wages that might be paid if contractors could recruit labor from distant cheap-labor areas; to permit union contractors to compete with nonunion contractors; to benefit the public through the superior efficiency of well-paid employees; and to compensate nonpublic employees with higher wages for the absence of job security and employment benefits enjoyed by public employees.”

    2. A 2009 decision of the Director of the California Department of Industrial Relations shows the ambiguity in this classification of work. The decision upheld a labor compliance program’s withholding of payment from a contractor because it did not pay the $45/hour wage rate to workers for “specified cleaning services, including vacuuming, dusting, cleaning and polishing windows, walls and floors.” The contractor argued that such work in this somewhat exceptional circumstance would fall under a “janitorial exception” that “only applies to contracts let solely for maintenance work.” The Director determined that because the cleaning work was performed as a requirement of a broader public works contract, the contractor had to pay the state-mandated wage rate for construction cleanup.

    3. The only local governments in the state that can circumvent state-mandated construction wage rates for certain taxpayer-funded projects are the state’s 121 charter cities. The number of new charter cities has increased significantly in the past several years as prevailing wage laws and public works definitions have become more absurd. In response, construction unions campaigned aggressively in 2011 and 2012 to defeat proposed city charters in Rancho Palos Verdes, Auburn, Costa Mesa, and Grover Beach.

    This is one of the few opportunities for local governments and beleaguered taxpayers to escape the clutches of the state legislature. To find out more about charter cities exercising local authority over wage rates for construction contractors on purely municipal projects, see this guide entitled Are Charter Cities Taking Advantage of State-Mandated Construction Wage Rate (“Prevailing Wage”) Exemptions?

    Reply this comment
  5. Bill - San Jose
    Bill - San Jose 12 January, 2013, 10:30

    Our crews were setup to pay Davis Bacon wages.

    I can attest that the term prevailing wage and davis bacon are part of the problem we face when dealing with unions and governments. Neither is productive and both costs taxpayers billions each year in overcompensated work classifications.

    Forklift operator on our project was paid 22.00/hour. With Davis Bacon, it went to 51.51 per hour.

    These are facts that cannot be disputed. Getting bonded to operate a forklift takes two hours.

    Next topic about how unions and government have ruined this country / state.

    Reply this comment
  6. Marten Purdy
    Marten Purdy 12 January, 2013, 11:21

    Window washing, lawn care, painting and some other handyman kind of undertakings are usually included in janitorial services. It would be wise on your budget if you seek a janitorial service that offers all these services in one combo pack.

    Reply this comment
  7. Valerie
    Valerie 14 January, 2013, 17:09

    And people wonder why businesses are leaving California….

    Reply this comment
  8. Adam
    Adam 28 March, 2013, 09:59

    I have experienced the same issue when contracting with a government agency directly. They require all bidders to agree to pay prevailing wages and then award the bid to someone who is 40% of the cost of a prevailing wage bid. And the action is blatant.
    We provide experienced seasonal office workers and so are bidding on say 10 positions for 3 months. That’s 522 hours for each person x 10 people. So we multiple 5,220 hours times the $22.00 prevailing wage for a total of $114,840. You then adds some overhead to arrive at your final bid price.

    The winning bidder was $48,000 total. When the other bidders point out this bid is not in compliance, we are told that to protest the award we have to put up 20% of our bid ($23,000) and the city will investigate. If the city finds no problem then we forfeit the $23,000. I have never paid, would you? If they won’t do the math then they won’t do the investigation. They will just keep my $23K.

    This makes it impossible to follow the law and win a bid.

    So if you are willing to sign papers with the city to say you follow all their regulations, then they are protected and can claim innocence if investigated. The whole point of contracting out for labor is that they don’t have the budget to pay prevailing wages themselves. They reject detailed invoices and so don’t really want to know what you pay your workers.

    If the Prevailing Wage laws weren’t in place then this is how it should work.

    But if you want to win a bid today you have to accept liability, ignore the law and put your company at risk.

    Reply this comment
  9. violet
    violet 15 October, 2013, 20:04

    CA is so crooked. They require workers to be paid these asanine hourly wages, yet they wont take bids for those rates.They take the bottom of the barrell number and starving contractors have to get low to even get a job. They make deals with their guys that they cant afford the rate, but offer them a lower rate. They shake on it and then the DIR calls the workers several times a day and entices the workers to turn in their boss. If the worker happens to be a race other than white, they ask them over and over again if their boss is racist towards them. The DIR is corrupt and will do anything to put companies out of business. Thet make it impossible to pay prevailing wage, yet they are so determined to put businesses out of business. I could elaborate more, but Im tired. I have first hand knowledge and hope a class action lawsuit is filed against CA and the DIR for what they have done.

    Reply this comment
  10. DSA Inspector
    DSA Inspector 18 December, 2015, 05:06

    I am they target as a legal extortion scam by to known subcontractors in the inspection field, in Los Angeles, for the Division of the State Architect. They are DSA inspectors with no integrity or morals. These individuals are extorting thousands and thousands of dollars from people like myself.

    There is a loophole and they are using it against honest people. They own their own corporations. Payments were made to their corporation by my corp. yet they are suing my Corp as individuals. Invoices were on Corp stationary & all payments were made to their corporations. They say they were employees yet months would go by without any conversations between us. I have done nothing improper. They really are sub contractors. My financial life is being ruined after a life time of work.

    If someone reads this and wants to help please contact me at the following email.

    [email protected]

    This is highway robbery!

    I have less than 25 days ts to respond to a summons- I really need help- Please

    The email I am using hides my identity from this suing me. Please help

    Reply this comment
  11. Anonymous Contractor
    Anonymous Contractor 11 January, 2016, 14:09

    As a General Contractor we put prevailing wage requirements in every contract to subcontractors. We also follow all of the guidelines for monitoring the subcontractors compliance with these laws. It is very expensive paperwork because the scope of each classification is not very well defined. What has happened multiple times is that a Subcontractor will not pay their workers the correct wage. They will in turn complain to the DIR and then claim that they are our employees which is a lie. The labor commissioner does not care, the judge does not care and the voters do not care because the workers win every time. And they always take the opportunity to embellish their unpaid hours sometimes claiming their cousins, etc worked on site even though the site log shows they were never there. Why should the General Contractor be punished for a Subcontractor who underbids the project and then doesn’t pay their workers? How was such an incompetent person even issued a CA Contractor’s license? Not sure why but the truth is that the burden of making sure subcontractors are following the law falls to us, the GC. So word to the wise be careful who you take a risk on when awarding bidders the project. It’s not always in your best interest to hire the lowest bidder. Drywall is particularly scandalous. Be especially wary of that trade.

    Reply this comment
  12. robbie
    robbie 4 September, 2016, 16:38

    My husband is working at the joint forces training facility doing hvac work he believes he’s getting cheated on the prevailing wage but have had a problem finding exactly what the whe should be . Can anyone steer us in the right direction to figure this out?

    Reply this comment

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