What is a “Public Work” Under California Law?

February 12, 2015

Last updated on November 17, 2023

Crains and Construction

Defining Public Work

Often workers are unsure whether the California project where they are working is a “public work” that requires their employer to pay them a minimum “prevailing wage” rate set by the State of California.

California Labor Code section 1720 defines a public work as:

“Construction, alteration, demolition, installation, or repair work done under contract and paid for in whole or in part out of public funds . . . For purposes of this paragraph, “construction” includes work performed during the design and preconstruction phases of construction, including, but not limited to, inspection and land surveying work. For purposes of this paragraph, “installation” includes, but is not limited to, the assembly and disassembly of freestanding and affixed modular office systems.”

This means that a public work is a project that was for construction, alteration (changes), demolition (take down), or repair work that was paid for in “whole or in part” out of public funds. So if any of the funding came from public funds, typically the state or cities, counties, school districts, etc., it is considered paid for with public funds and is a public work. If the project is valued at over $1,000, the status as a public work triggers prevailing wage requirements.

Section 1720 subdivision defines “paid for in whole or in part” with public funds to include the payment of money “or the equivalent of money” by the state or political subdivision directly to or “on behalf of” the public works contractor, subcontractor or developer. As a result, certain types of cost reimbursements, tax credits or other development incentives may be deemed the “equivalent of money” and may trigger public works coverage requirement compliance with prevailing wage laws.

The work on a public work extends to preconstruction work including site surveying and preparation.

When a project is a public work, its bidding process, contract administration and construction compliance is typically governed by California’s public works laws including the Labor Code. The California Labor Code requires that the awarding body notify any contractor or employer bidding on a public works contract that the project is a public work and requires payment of prevailing wages.

If you have a question as to whether the project where you work is a public work requiring payment of prevailing wages, Donahoo & Associates, PC may be able to investigate the public works status and provide information regarding your legal rights.

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