Who Is Exempt From Prevailing Wages in California? 2024

California law requires that prevailing wages be paid to all trade employees who are hired onto a public works project. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule. In some cases, certain projects or employees may be exempt from the opportunity to receive prevailing wages. If you’re asked to join a public works proposal, and you assume that you’ll be receiving the prevailing wage for your job type, it’s essential to ensure that your project or job type qualifies before continuing.

When Do Prevailing Wages Apply?

It’s imperative for anyone who is asked to work on a public works program to understand the state’s prevailing wage law. This law simply states that employers must pay the prevailing wage for each employee’s job type when they work on public works projects exceeding $1,000. For a project to be considered public works, it must be partially or fully funded by the public and be monitored by the local or state government. Prevailing wages most commonly apply to trade workers who aid in public works construction, maintenance, and other essential duties that help keep a thriving community. To receive prevailing wages, your project must be classified as public works and your job classification must be approved by the state. Common employees who receive prevailing wages include carpenters, construction workers, painters, plumbers, roofers, and more.

When Are You Exempt From Prevailing Wages in California?

While the majority of public works projects and their employees qualify for prevailing wages, there are some instances where they may be exempt. These situations can include:

  1. The Awarding Body Has a Labor Compliance Program

An awarding body is a person or party that is in charge of a public works project and creates the contracts for it. If the awarding body of a project has its own Labor Compliance Program (LCP), they don’t have to adhere to prevailing wage requirements for a construction project until it exceeds $25,000. For maintenance, demolition, or general upkeep and assistance, the awarding body is not required to use prevailing wages unless the project exceeds $15,000.

  1. The Project Is Under the Full Control of the Federal Government

Because the prevailing wage law was implemented by the state, public works projects that are controlled by the federal government do not need to comply with its terms. However, only projects that are 100% funded by the federal government and under their management are exempt. If a public works project is only partially funded through the federal government, it most likely will have to follow prevailing wage guidelines.

  1. You Are a Volunteer

If you work for a non-profit organization or simply volunteered to assist in a public works project, you do not qualify for prevailing wages. This is because you were not contracted onto the project by the awarding body and instead offered your services. However, you may be able to receive reasonable accommodations such as breaks, meal time, and more.

  1. You Are Considered Professional Personnel

Your job type or its classification may also impact whether you qualify for prevailing wages. California’s Labor Code details that prevailing wages apply to trade and construction workers but not professionals outside these fields. For example, architects are oftentimes hired to help design a creative building for a public works project. Because they are a professional who is considered an “exempt” employee, they will also be exempt from receiving prevailing wages.


Q: What Qualifies as a Public Works Project in California?

A: California’s Labor Code defines a public works project as any sort of construction, maintenance, demolition, or upkeep that is publicly funded. For a public works project to qualify for prevailing wage rates, it must cost at least $1,000 or more. Common public works projects that offer prevailing wages include highway and road maintenance, electrical wire upkeep, and the construction of local and state governmental structures.

Q: Can an Apprentice Earn Prevailing Wages on a Public Works Project?

A: Yes. Apprentices and journeymen are both eligible to receive prevailing wages if they are working on qualifying public works projects. However, the basic hourly rates for apprentices are generally much lower than those of journeymen. To find your exact prevailing wage determination, talk to a Prevailing Wage Attorney in San Diego, CA, or find California’s directory of prevailing wages in your county.

Q: Who Are Exempt Employees in California?

A: The terms “exempt” and “non-exempt” refer to the classifications of California employees. Exempt employees hold jobs of higher statuses or in professional positions. Because these kinds of employees generally receive a high salary and additional benefits, they are exempt from overtime payments and other wage laws like meal breaks. Non-exempt employees are most often hourly workers who can receive benefits such as meal breaks, overtime, rest breaks, and more. 

Q: What Happens If You’re Hired to Do Multiple Small Projects That Eventually Surpass $1,000?

A: Prevailing wage requirements can only be triggered when a publicly funded project surpasses $1,000 in its total cost. However, the state has specific legislation stating that jobs cannot be divided to avoid paying prevailing wages. For example, if you were scheduled to perform a job twice that had a total cost of $550, the awarding body must be aware that these two jobs would exceed $1,000, and they would have to pay you prevailing wages.

Southern California Prevailing Wage Attorneys

Before accepting an offer to join a public works project in Southern California, it’s crucial that you talk to a lawyer who can help you understand your rights as an employee. Otherwise, you may go into a job assuming you’ll receive prevailing wages and be severely underpaid.

At Ferraro Vega San Diego Employment Lawyers, our priority is making sure that our clients receive the pay that they work for. Our employment law services cover a wide range of issues, including prevailing wage matters in San Diego. If you are concerned about being exempt from prevailing wages, or are not sure how they work, contact Ferraro Vega San Diego Employment Lawyers for guidance.