The California Supreme Court unanimously held Monday that a group of workers contracted at a county sanitation district are covered by the state’s prevailing wage law, finding that their work falls within the definition of “public works” under an applicable Labor Code provision. In a separate concurrence, three justices invited the California Legislature to revisit that statute to address its “seeming incongruity.”

The case involves a contract between Barrett Business Services Inc. and the Los Angeles County Sanitation District, in which Barrett provided belt sorters to staff two of the district’s warehouse-style sanitation facilities. The belt sorters were under Barrett’s supervision and not considered employees of the sanitation district.

The belt sorters sued Barrett and a former manager over their work at the district facilities, alleging failure to pay minimum and/or prevailing wages, pay overtime, and provide meal periods. The plaintiffs claimed their work fell under Labor Code section 1720, subdivision (a)(2) and that they were thus entitled to prevailing wage compensation.

California’s prevailing wage law is a minimum wage provision that generally applies to those employed in public works. Labor Code section section 1720, subdivision (a)(2) defines “public works” as “work done” for certain types of government districts, including irrigation and utility districts.

The trial court granted Barrett’s motion to strike the prevailing wage allegations, and a split Second District panel reversed. The appeals court’s majority concluded that the plaintiffs’ belt sorting qualified as public work under section 1720(a)(2). The California Supreme Court agreed to review the case.

Authoring the Supreme Court’s opinion, Justice Carol Corrigan reviewed the history of California’s prevailing wage law, which was first enacted in 1931 in response to the Great Depression, and noted that the goal of prevailing wage laws “was to give local contractors and labor a fair opportunity to work on public building projects that might otherwise be awarded to contractors who hired cheaper out-of-market labor.”

“The statutory obligation to pay prevailing wages is independent of any contractual requirement,” Corrigan wrote, citing Lusardi Construction Co. v. Aubry (1992) 1 Cal.4th 976. “Prevailing wages must be paid regardless of any private agreement.”

Barrett conceded that the sanitation district is covered under section 1720(a)(2), but the company argued that the only “work” covered under that section is the “[c]onstruction, alteration, demolition, installation, or repair” described in section 1720, subdivision (a)(1). Because the plaintiffs’ belt sorting duties didn’t involve any such work, Barrett argued, they weren’t employed on public works under section 1720(a)(2).

The Supreme Court rejected that argument, holding that the statute’s covered district provision “defines public work not in terms of the tasks performed but in terms of the governmental district for which it is done.”

“Other provisions in section 1720(a) contain limiting language when defining street and sewer work, carpet laying, demolition and infrastructure projects, and tree removal as public work,” Corrigan wrote. “The covered district definition does not.”

Therefore, Corrigan wrote, the “most reasonable interpretation” of “public works” in section 1720(a)(2) is that it is not limited by a different definition set out in section 1720(a)(1), and the belt sorters’ labor qualifies as “public works” under section 1720(a)(2).

Justice Leondra Kruger wrote a separate concurrence “to call attention to the seeming incongruity in the statute we are interpreting” — specifically, she wrote, why did the Legislature choose to treat work for utility and other covered districts “so differently from work for other public agencies?”

“Whatever reasons the Legislature may once have had, they have been lost in the mists of time,” Kruger wrote, joined by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Martin Jenkins. “Now, more than 80 years after the statute was first enacted, the Legislature may wish to revisit the issue.”

Arguing counsel for the parties could not be immediately reached for comment on the decision.

The case is Kaanaana v. Barrett Business Services, Inc., case number S253458, in the Supreme Court of California.

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