California Supreme Court Broadly Defines “Public Works” In Prevailing Wage Law

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Jun 02, 2021

David Kaanaana and others were former employees of Barrett Business Services, Inc. (Barrett).  Barrett contracted with the Los Angeles County Sanitation District (District) to provide belt sorters to operate the District’s facilities. Belt sorters were responsible for removing non-recyclable materials from the conveyor belt, clearing obstructions, and sorting recyclables.

Kaanaana and other employees sued, claiming, among other things, that Barrett failed to pay them the “prevailing wage” they were owed under California law.  They asserted that their recycling duties constituted “public work” under the California Labor Code, which states:

“[e]xcept for public works projects of . . . ($1,000) or less, not less than the general prevailing rate of per diem wages for work of a similar character in the locality in which the public work is performed, and not less than the general prevailing rate of per diem wages for holiday and overtime work fixed as provided in this chapter, shall be paid to all workers employed on public works.” (§ 1771.)

This section of the California Labor Code applies to some categories of work performed under contract with public agencies, but not to work that a public agency performs using its own workforce.  After much litigation, the California Court of Appeal agreed with the employees and found that this recycling work was “public work” subject to prevailing wage law.  Barrett appealed.

On appeal, the California Supreme Court also concluded that the employees were entitled to prevail wages.  In reviewing the language and legislative history of the Labor Code, the Court determined that the definition of “public work” had broadened overtime to cover work beyond that associated with construction projects. The Court also reasoned that the goal of the prevailing wage law is to ensure that local contractors have a fair opportunity to work on public building projects that may otherwise be awarded to contractors hiring cheaper out-of-market labor.  Accordingly, even though recycling duties are not specifically enumerated in the Labor Code, the Court concluded that the belt sorters’ labor qualified as “public work.”

Kaanaana v. Barrett Bus. Servs., Inc. (2021) 11 Cal.5th 158.


This case confirms the judiciary’s trend to broadly define “public work.”  Educational entities that contract for work must be sure to determine whether the contract comes within California’s prevailing wage laws.

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