Missouri Supreme Court Broadly Interprets Missouri Prevailing Wage Act

In the recent case of Utility Service Co. v. The Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, the Missouri Supreme Court decided the scope of coverage of the Missouri Prevailing Wage Act ("MPWA"), which is a law that requires workers to be paid the prevailing wage (which is often a higher than normal rate of pay) for work performed on construction-related jobs on public works projects. The prevailing wage varies, depending on the location and type of work performed. In that case, the Court held that painting, welding, and other tasks performed on an existing water tower fall within the meaning of "construction work," and that the workers on the job were entitled to the prevailing wage.

The MPWA states that the prevailing wage "shall be paid to all workmen employed by or on behalf of any public body engaged in the construction of public works, exclusive of maintenance work." The MPWA contains an exception for "maintenance work," which is defined as "the repair, but not the replacement, of existing facilities when the size, type or extent of the existing facilities is not thereby changed or increased."

In this case, the contractor was hired by Monroe City, Missouri to perform work under a Water Tower Maintenance Contract. Under that Contract, the contractors employees were required to perform the following tasks with respect to the tank: annual inspection and servicing; draining, cleaning, and disinfecting; repairs such as steel replacement, steel parts, expansion joints, water level indicators, sway rod adjustments, manhole covers/gaskets, and other components; and repainting the interior and/or exterior of the time when needed.

The Court began its analysis by stating that the MPWA is a remedial statute intended to prevent payment of substandard wages for work on public works projects, and that it should be broadly construed. Any doubts about whether the law applies are to be resolved in favor of requiring payment of the prevailing wage (i.e., doubts resolved in favor of the workers). The Court held that the term "construction" under the MPWA did not refer merely to new contruction, but can also include work performed on existing facilities. With respect to the project at issue, the Court found that the work consisted of re-construction, improvements, major repairs, and painting, all of which are encompassed by the MPWA. Therefore, the workers on the project were entitled to the prevailing wage.

This decision comes at a time when workers' wages and hours seem to be at the forefront of litigation, both for Missouri lawyers and across the nation. In a down economy, employers are doing what they can to decrease their cost of doing business, and that sometimes includes payment of wages below what the law requires. Likewise, many workers' are feeling the economic pinch and are finding that every dollar of wages is key to making ends meet. Courts are increasingly interpreting federal and state wage laws broadly and in favor of protecting workers' rights.

If you believe you are not being paid the wages to which you are entitled, or if you need more information to determine your rights under the law, you should contact aSt. Louis wage and hour lawyer.