Apprenticeships are vital components to traditional building and construction trade jobs such as carpenters, plumbers, electricians, masons, and sheet metal workers. They provide hands-on experience in a structured work-based training environment.
Under Massachusetts Prevailing Wage Law workers on certain jobs involving the state, counties, or local cities and towns must receive prevailing wage (often called “the rate” on job sites). This includes apprentices working on those same jobs. The law exists so companies don’t win job bids – and get public money — on the backs of their employees by driving down their wages.
If you are an apprentice, you should be paid the corresponding apprentice prevailing wage rate for your job classification and your step. The actual hourly rate is set by the Department of Labor Standards (“DLS”). See G.L. c. 149, § 26. Prevailing wage jobs typically involve work on libraries, public or charter schools, police or fire stations, town halls, and other public buildings. The point of this article is that you may not be receiving the correct prevailing wage rate.
An “apprentice” has special meaning under the prevailing wage laws in Massachusetts.
Employers on prevailing wage projects may not merely label their inexperienced, or newer workers, apprentices. They also cannot “try you out” and pay you as an apprentice to start with a promise of a higher rate “if you work out.”
Instead, Massachusetts law has set out some requirements before you can be paid as an apprentice. You must meet the Massachusetts legal definition of an apprentice, which is, “a person at least 16 years of age who has entered an apprentice agreement with an employer, or an association of employers, or an organization of employees, or other apprentice program sponsor.” G.L. c. 23, § 11H. Your apprentice agreement must be written, between you and an apprentice program sponsor, and be registered with the Department of Labor Standards, Division of Apprentice Standards. The agreement must, among other things, provide “for not less than 2,000 hours of reasonably continuous employment, consistent with training requirements as established by industry practice, in the [apprenticed] occupation.” Id. Additionally, the program sponsor must also register its program with the Department of Labor Standards, Division of Apprentice Standards.
Failure to comply with the definitions contained in General Laws, Chapter 23, Section 11H, results in underpayment of the prevailing wage. As DLS warns on its project rate sheets:
All apprentices working on [a] project are required to be registered with the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards, Division of Apprentice Standards (DLS/DAS) . . . An apprentice registered with DAS may be paid the lower apprentice wage rate at the applicable step as provided on the prevailing wage schedule. Any apprentice not registered with DLS/DAS regardless of whether or not they are registered with any other federal, state, local, or private agency must be paid the journeyworker’s rate for the trade.
Read the above again. If your employer is casual about the requirements for apprenticeship registration or standards, you have the right to the journeyworker’s rate. In other words, if you are paid as an apprentice, but are not registered with DLS/DAS, or your program sponsor (likely your employer) has not registered its program with DLS/DAS, you should be paid the full rate for your work on any projects you have worked.
Keep in mind that some licensed trades also require apprenticeship registration with the Massachusetts Department of Professional Licensure (“DPL”). However, this does not eliminate the DLS/DAS registration requirement. It is an additional requirement. Again, to be paid the apprentice rate, you must be registered with DLS/DAS.
Even if you and your employer have complied with the DLS/DAS registration requirements, you still could be paid the wrong rate in a couple of ways. First, you could be paid at the wrong step. Think of apprenticeship as a staircase to full journeyworker status. As you advance, you climb each step and receive a greater percentage of the journeyworker’s prevailing wage rate along the way. Each step has a corresponding percentage of the prevailing wage rate attached. Depending on the job classification, these rates generally range from 40% to 95% of the journeyworker rate. As you can guess, this can result in a significant difference in your hourly rate. Your employer must pay you at the appropriate step.
Another way to get paid the incorrect rate is if your employer is “out of ratio.” When DLS, issues its project rate sheets, it also lists a maximum ratio of apprentices to journeyworkers for each apprenticeship job classification. This is to make sure that you get the instruction you need, and that employers do not staff jobs solely with apprentices to avoid paying the full journeyworker rate. As an apprentice, you should not be the only worker on site. If your employer does not comply with the ratio requirements, you may be entitled to the full journeyworker rate.
Unfortunately, employers have a strong incentive to pay less that the correct rate, and they often do. If you believe that you were paid at the incorrect step or should have received the full journeyworker rate, get in touch with us. We evaluate cases confidentially and at no cost.