New California Law Makes Contractors Liable for Subcontractors’ Unpaid Wages

On October 14, 2017, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 1701, which will make general contractors on private construction projects liable for their subcontractors’ failure to pay wages due to the subcontractors’ employees.  The new law applies to contracts entered into on or after January 1, 2018.

Assembly Bill 1701 adds Section 218.7 to the California Labor Code.  Subdivision (a)(1) provides:

For contracts entered into on or after January 1, 2018, a direct contractor making or taking a contract in the state for the erection, construction, alteration, or repair of a building, structure, or other private work, shall assume, and is liable for, any debt owed to a wage claimant or third party on the wage claimant’s behalf, incurred by a subcontractor at any tier acting under, by, or for the direct contractor for the wage claimant’s performance of labor included in the subject of the contract between the direct contractor and the owner.

The direct contractor’s liability under Section 218.7 will extend only to any unpaid wages, fringe or other benefit payments or contributions, including interest, but will not extend to penalties or liquidated damages.

Employees will not have standing to enforce the new law.  Only the California Labor Commissioner, a third party owed fringe or other benefit payments or contributions on a wage claimant’s behalf (such as a union trust fund), or a joint labor-management cooperation committee may bring a civil action against a direct contractor for the unpaid wages.   A joint labor-management committee must provide the direct contractor with at least 30 days’ notice by first-class mail before filing the action.

A prevailing plaintiff in any such action is entitled to recover its reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs, including expert witness fees.  The property of a direct contractor that has a judgment entered against it may be attached to satisfy the judgment.

The new law authorizes a direct contractor to request from its subcontractors their employees’ wage statements and payroll records required to be maintained under Labor Code section 1174.  The payroll records must contain information “sufficient to apprise the requesting party of the subcontractor’s payment status in making fringe or other benefit payments or contributions to a third party on the employee’s behalf.”   Direct contractors and subcontractors also have the right to request from any lower tier subcontractors “award information that includes the project name, name and address of the subcontractor, contractor with whom the subcontractor is under contract, anticipated start date, duration, and estimated journeymen and apprentice hours, and contact information for its subcontractors on the project.”   A direct contractor may withhold as “disputed” all sums owed if a subcontractor does not timely provide the requested information, until such time as that information is provided.

Given this new law, general contractors operating in California should be even more careful than before about the subcontractors they hire, and pay particular attention to the subcontractors’ ability and willingness to comply with all applicable wage and hour laws.  This includes requirements to provide timely meal and rest periods, because meal and rest period premiums qualify as wages.  General contractors should also ensure their subcontractor agreements require the subcontractors to indemnify the general contractor for any liability arising from the new law.  Once a project is underway, general contractors should closely monitor their subcontractors’ compliance with wage and hour laws and fringe benefit payments, and where necessary exercise their right to request payroll records from subcontractors to ensure they are timely paying all required wages and fringe benefits.

Aaron Buckley
Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton LLP
San Diego, CA


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