Does the Prevailing Wage Pertain To Me?

Dear Compliance Man,

Where does the “prevailing wage” come from and how do I know if it applies to me?

-Paulo in Fall River, MA

Dear Paulo,

There is a long answer to your question and I won’t bore you with details here (Give me a call if you want the full run-down). The prevailing wage rate is set in advance by the state for each individual project, even before the ground is broken. If you’re working on a federal job, then it’s the US Department of Labor that sets the rate.

As you probably know, the rate is set differently for different trades: crane operators, electricians, laborers, painters, etc., and is set to increase in increments, often over the life of the project. Contractors are required by law to post the rates on the job site; the rates can also be found in the “specs” or contract that the Clerk of the Works has.

As far as how to tell if your job is a “rate job” (“prevailing wage project”), ask yourself:  is this a “public project”? Is it owned by, say, a city or town, or maybe the highway department? Or is it a privately-owned or commercial enterprise?

Remember: the general contractor may be a private company, but as long as they are working to build something for the public, with few exceptions, the rate applies. It all comes down to ownership. Acme Inc. may build it, but they won’t run it after they hand it over to say, New Bedford or Holyoke or the state. Still not sure? Just call us and we’ll help you know for sure. We can probably tell you what the rate is, as well.

For free, confidential information about your rights as a construction worker, call the Foundation for Fair Contracting today at 1-877-507-3247, email us at, or fill out this electronic form.

For more commonly asked Compliance Man questions, visit the Compliance Man archives. Send your question to

Often Owned Overtime

Dear Compliance Man:

My husband works for a small construction company in Western Massachusetts. He gets several different rates of pay, depending on the job, but his base pay is lower. My question is about his overtime.

His employer will only pay him “straight time” not time and a half. Also, this pay is paid cash, and not regularly. Instead of receiving weekly overtime pay, it accumulates until my husband asks for some of his overtime pay. Then the boss will include a couple hundred dollars in his paycheck envelope. They are not offering us an accounting of how many overtime hours he has accumulated, what has been paid, etc., even though I’ve asked for it. Financially this is difficult for us—we certainly could use the money weekly, not just when we get desperate and need to ask for it. The boss claims we are “better off” receiving the money as cash, but I’m not so sure.

–Frustrated and barely making ends meet


Dear Frustrated:

It sounds like you have every right to feel frustrated! If your husband’s boss only paid him when he felt like it, that would be a clear violation of state and federal laws. His overtime shenanigans aren’t legal either.

Overtime is calculated on a weekly basis and is triggered when an employee works over 40 hours that week. Employees must be paid in full, including overtime, within six days of the end of the pay period. That means that any time your husband works more than 40 hours in a single week, his next pay check must reflect that.

As for being paid in cash, his employer is within the law on this one, but he is required to give you the accounting you asked for. Whether payment is made via cash or check (promissory notes or IOUs aren’t legal), it must be accompanied by a list of hours worked including overtime, hourly rate and any deductions that have been taken out. Our state and federal governments enacted these worker protections in order that workers like your husband would be “better off.”

The most important thing that your husband can do is keep track of exactly how many hours he’s working, regular and overtime, and at what rate. If he concludes that his boss is underpaying him, then it may be time to consider filing a claim with the Attorney General’s office. The FFCM will gladly help him with this (we’re sending along a log book that your husband may find helpful), and will also be happy to provide his employer with a little refresher course on the law.

Thanks for writing!

For more commonly asked Compliance Man questions, visit the Compliance Man archives. Send your question to

Long on Hours, Short on Pay

Dear Compliance Man,

I worked construction last year on a public job and I’m pretty sure I got paid less than what I was supposed to be getting. If I’m right and my former boss owes me money, how do I get it back? What happens to him if it turns out that he was breaking the law?

–Shortchanged in Somerset

Dear Shortchanged,

You’ve come to the right place! If you suspect that you’ve been paid less than the prevailing wage on a public job, the Foundation for Fair Contracting can help. Contact us by phone, email, letter or fax. We’ll discuss your complaint with you and send you the form and information you need to start the process.

Using whatever information we receive from you and the additional documents we’ve collected, we’ll help you assemble as complete a complaint as possible for transmittal to the state enforcement agency – the Office of the Attorney General. Their Fair Labor Practices Division will assign an investigator to your case who’ll determine whether and just how much money you’re owed. Your investigator might also contact you for additional information. The Attorney General will notify you of the outcome. You can contact the Foundation at any time during the investigation process for updates. The Attorney General may also issue a citation and additional penalties against your former employer.

How long does the process take? This often depends on how clearly you’re able to document your case. And the sooner you get started, the sooner you’re likely to get the money you are owed!

REMEMBER:  Always keep a log of all your jobs – hours worked, work performed, wage rates – and your pay stubs so that if you need to file a complaint, you’ll have the records you need! We’ll be happy to send you one of our Log Books; just call 1-877-507-3247, email us at, or fill out this electronic form.

For more commonly asked Compliance Man questions, visit the Compliance Man archives. Send your question to

Working in Worcester? My Employer Says I Did…

Dear Compliance Man,

I recently got a mailing from you folks and it showed me working on a construction project way out in Worcester. Well, I’ve never worked out there. So why would my name show up on some project that I’ve never worked on?

— Confused in Canton

Dear Confused,

Unfortunately the situation you described happens all too often.

Here’s how it works: Massachusetts requires every contractor who works on public construction projects to submit certified payrolls to the state, showing who’s working on the project and how much they’re getting paid. Some contractors pad their payrolls with fake names to avoid paying the legally-mandated wage. Some of these ghost workers are just that—ghosts—but others are like you, real folks who are listed on projects they’ve never worked on.

So what does it mean for you? Other than an unpleasant surprise, not much. But for the employer who misused your name, it’s likely to mean all sorts of trouble. Contractors who pad their payrolls with “ghosts” often have plenty to hide, and the Attorney General won’t hesitate to look into this contractor’s story.

Thanks for writing!

For more commonly asked Compliance Man questions, visit the Compliance Man archives. Send your question to

But I’m an Employee, Right?

Dear Compliance Man:

I got hired as a painter six months ago. I was happy to find work but there’s always been something kind of funny about this job. My boss says that we’re not employees but independent painters. Since I started, I’ve worked on a couple of schools and some private stuff and I always get paid the same flat rate, no taxes taken out. Is this illegal?

–Painted into a Corner

Dear Painted:

Thanks for writing. I understand how tough it is in this economy to come forward and question an employer when so many construction workers are out of work.

Your instinct is almost certainly correct though. For years, employers have been trying to skirt state and federal wage laws by claiming that you are your own boss. In fact, a study of construction contractors in Massachusetts found that 14% of them had wrongly classified their workers as independent contractors, denying them the wages and benefits they’re legally entitled to and sticking them with a major bill come tax time. Fortunately, both state and federal authorities have begun to crack down on this particular scam.

The bottom line: if your boss calls the shots about where and when you work and provides you with the equipment necessary to do your job, you are NOT an independent contractor.

For more commonly asked Compliance Man questions, visit the Compliance Man archives. Send your question to