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The Basics of Prevailing Wage & The Davis Bacon Act
Jason Sperflage
May 17, 2022

The Davis-Bacon Act

Prevailing wage was established under federal law by the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931. The act mandates that contractors and subcontractors pay their workers an hourly prevailing wage when working on any federally funded construction project over $2,000. The U.S. Department of Labor determines the prevailing wage for any project. The prevailing wage is typically based on the wages paid to workers employed on similar projects in the area. The act was intended to avoid situations where contractors would low-ball their proposed costs on a project at the expense of their workers’ wages. There are also several states that have their own prevailing wage laws, known as “little Davis-Bacon” acts, for any state-funded construction projects and does, in some cases, extend to projects at the local and municipalities level as well.

So prevailing wage is basically a worker’s hourly wage?

Yes and no. Prevailing wage comprises two parts: The first is the basic hourly rate paid out to each worker. The second is what is known as the “fringe benefits” amount. Fringe benefits include a separate per-hour dollar amount paid out as part of a worker’s wages or used to fund a “bona fide” benefits plan, such as a 401(k), life and health insurance, vacation, and holiday pay, or even apprenticeship training programs.

Simply put, if a worker’s base pay on a project was $30 an hour and the fringe benefits amount was $10 an hour, the contractor can pay out the $10 in fringe benefits as wages, essentially increasing the worker’s hourly pay to $40, or they can elect to put that $10 into a benefits plan for their employee.

So, which is better — cash or a bona fide benefits plan?

Many contractors pay out the mandatory fringe benefit as wages because it’s the easiest way to comply with the law. While that may be true, it’s also much more costly to the contractor. And the reason is pretty simple: all wages paid to employees are subject to payroll taxes, such as social security taxes, federal and state unemployment taxes, workers’ compensation insurance, and general liability insurance. The rate varies, but it is estimated that the additional cost to the contractor for these payroll taxes is roughly 25 cents for every dollar paid in wages.

On the other hand, if a contractor uses those fringe dollars to fund a “bona fide” benefits plan for their employees, that money would be exempt from all payroll taxes. Thus saving the contractor tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of dollars a year.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an example:

Let’s say Contractor A has 25 employees working on a prevailing wage job that will last six months. Each employee works approximately 500 hours during this time, and the fringe amount is roughly $10 an hour.

25 (employees) x 500 hours = 12,500 hours

12,500 (hours) x $10 fringe benefit dollars = $125,000 fringe benefit dollars

If Contractor A decides to pay out that $125,000 fringe benefit as wages to their employees, they will be hit with a 25% payroll tax on every single one of those dollars.

$125,000 x 25% in payroll taxes = $31,250 in additional payroll taxes

If Contractor A elects to instead put those fringe benefit dollars into a “bona fide” benefits plan for her employees, such as a 401(k) retirement account, not a single dollar would be subject to payroll taxes. That means $31,250 in savings, which can be used later to make more competitive bids for future projects.

Using these fringe dollars properly also allows a contractor to implement or improve their existing benefit programs in a few ways:

  1. For those employers who have benefits, paying the fringes as cash means funding the benefits in duplicity, as these payments are paid out of the operational account of the business. Using these fringe dollars to an employer and employee’s advantage can reduce that extra expense considerably.
  2. In today’s tight labor market, employees look at total compensation packages, including benefits. These fringe dollars can assist companies with bolstering their current programs by offering better benefit coverages or adding additional benefit options for their employees.
  3. Fringe dollars can also be used to help owners and other key employees contribute more to their retirement while ensuring the overall company’s retirement plan passes annual testing.

In the end, when utilized correctly, prevailing wage — which is comprised of a per-hour cash wage and a per-hour benefits wage – is a significant benefit to both the laborers and contractors who work on publicly-funded construction projects.

Jason Sperfslage is Director of Sales with Beneco; a company that has provided prevailing wage solutions for contractors through unique employee benefits, compliance services, and HR solutions for over 35 years. The Beneco prevailing wage plans and strategies enable clients to win more bids, attract and retain the best employees, and reduce compliance risks. Beneco has saved clients millions of dollars in labor burden savings, while supporting over 60,000 contractors and their families. Visit www.beneco.com or contact Jason to learn more.  480-850-2556 | jsperfslage@beneco.com

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Prevailing wage benefits isn’t easy business. For over 35 years, Beneco has focused exclusively on serving the unique needs of contractors through employee benefits, compliance services, and HR solutions, and has a level of expertise in prevailing wage that few do. SERVICES PROVIDED NATIONWIDE

When contractors call us, it’s usually for the following reasons:

To save money.

Federal and state laws have been put into place to encourage you to provide your employees with better benefits. Take advantage of them to save more than 10% on your labor costs

To bid more competitively.

Lower labor costs will give you a competitive edge. Win jobs by bidding more competitively.

To attract & reward employees.

Construction workers who are satisfied with their employers' benefits programs are more likely to stay with their employer. Keep your employees by keeping them happy.

To maximize their own financial security.

Our unique 3-in-1 plan design and strategies can help business owners make greater tax-deferred contributions to their own retirement savings. Don't miss this opportunity.

To stay compliant.

Compliance is critical to keeping your costs down and ensuring you can run your business without distractions. Our 35 years of experience give clients a peace-of-mind.

Visit www.beneco.com to learn more.


Beneco services include recordkeeping, third party administration (TPA), and benefits consulting services. 

Beneco solutions include 401(k), major medical, group whole life insurance, group term life insurance, payroll, health reimbursement arrangement (HRA), dental, vision, vacation/sick/holiday, AD&D insurance, long-term disability, short-term disability, voluntary spousal benefits, chiropractic, apprenticeship (BAATT), and more! 

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