Court Adopts Broad Definition of “Public Works” That Are Subject to California’s Prevailing Wage Law

Category: Client Update
Date: Dec 31, 2018 11:31 AM

David Kaanaana and others were former employees (“employees”) of Barrett Business Services, Inc. (“Company”).  The Company supplied employees to publicly-owned and operated recycling facilities through contracts with the Los Angeles County Sanitation District.   The employees worked at the recycling facilities as belt sorters.  Their work consisted of standing at sorting stations placed along a conveyor belt; removing recyclable materials from a conveyor belt, and placing the material into receptacles at their sorting stations. 

Kaanaana and other employees sued, claiming that the Company failed to pay them the “prevailing wage” they were owed under California law. They asserted that their recycling sorting 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 Labor Code applies to work performed under contract with public agencies, but not to work that a public agency performs using its own labor force.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the employees and found that this recycling was “public work” that is subject to prevailing wage law.  This was the case even though recycling sorting work is not specifically listed among the categories of public work in the Labor Code. 

The Court reviewed the plain language and legislative history of the Labor Code and determined that the definition of “public work” had broadened over time to cover work beyond that associated with construction projects. The purpose of the prevailing wage law had also expanded to protect employees from substandard wages and to compensate nonpublic employees with higher wages.  The Court of Appeal reversed the judgment that narrowly defined “public works” and remanded the case back to the trial court. 

Kaanaana v. Barrett Business Services et al., 240 Cal.Rptr.3d 636 (2018).


LCW attorneys are experienced in prevailing wage issues and regularly assist special districts and other public agencies on these issues.

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