Three construction workers have settled a first-of-its-kind lawsuit with an employer they say illegally underpaid them for work at Minnesota State University and have received an undisclosed amount of money in back wages.

In a joint statement between the parties, employer Cole’s Electric of Owatonna denies any wrongdoing or violation of the state’s prevailing wage law.

But “on November 4, 2008, defendants paid all back pay allegedly owned to plaintiffs to resolve the case without further litigation,” the joint statement said.

An attorney for the plaintiffs, Justin Cummins, said he can’t comment on the results of the case beyond the joint statement.

The prevailing wage is essentially the wage that the largest numbers of laborers earn in a given area and specialty. For example, if three electricians earn $25 per hour and four earn $27 per hour, then all seven must be paid the higher rate.

The state requires contractors to pay this “prevailing wage" for state-funded contracts, and the plaintiffs charged they were paid a lower rate for less-skilled work.

The plaintiffs are Kyle Krienke, Cory Martinson and Jeremiah Johnson, and they filed their lawsuit in Blue Earth County District Court on Dec. 20, 2007. They alleged Cole’s Electric did not pay them the prevailing wage for electricians in Blue Earth County, which was $41.24 per hour in 2007, including benefits, and $27.84 in base pay.

In a filing with the court, the plaintiffs claimed they were paid between $10 and $15 less than the rate for laborers, which was about $27 per hour in 2007 in Blue Earth County, including benefits.

The plaintiffs also claimed Cole’s Electric put no mechanisms in place to ensure compliance with the law, instead delegating that responsibility to a secretary who doesn’t know what type of work employees perform or what constitutes electrical work.

In a 2007 letter to Cole’s Electric, Martinson expresses the belief he was being retaliated against by his bosses because he complained he wasn’t being paid the prevailing wage.

It appears to be the first lawsuit of its kind after a law went into effect July 1 that allows workers to sue their employers for prevailing wage violations. The law attempts to remedy some of the problems the state auditor found with the labor department's ability to enforce the law.

While the terms of the settlement preclude the parties from talking about it, both sides had very different views of the suit when it was filed.

Then, attorneys for the company said it was a “sour grapes” lawsuit instigated by a local union to retaliate after it was unable to persuade workers to join the union.

The workers’ lawyer responded that the union simply referred workers to him. He also noted a 2001 decision by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which found Cole’s Electric underpaid 10 employees by $2,714.52.

In a similar but separate case, Mankato company Javen’s Electric paid almost $22,000 in back wages last May after an investigation by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry determined workers were underpaid.

Derek Backus, with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 343, said he’s asked the state to investigate Cole’s Electric now that the lawsuit is complete.

Backus said three or four more Cole’s employees not involved in the lawsuit may be entitled to back wages.

A Department of Labor and Industry spokesman said there’s no current investigation on Cole’s Electric, but the issue is under review.

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