Lien laws are both stringent and confusing. Any contractor who improves real property is given an extraordinary power of being able to place a lien on the property in the event of non-payment, before obtaining a judgment. However, in order to maintain that right, there are strict requirements for notice to the land owner that must be met. Read more
The short answer is potentially a fair amount of rights, though as with many things it depends. In general residential work, the main mechanism for enforcing payment for both general contractors and sub-contractors is through the use of construction liens. This may not always be the case in commercial projects as it makes a difference as to what type of project it is to determine what lien rights, if any, exist for sub-contractors and what notice is required to be given.
According to the Wisconsin Courts,
A subcontractor is a person whose relation to the prime contractor is substantially the same for a part of the work as the prime contractor’s is to the owner for the entire job.
Farmer v. St. Croix Power Co. 117Wis. 76, 93 N.W. 830 (1903).
The Wisconsin Statutes, 779.01(3), sets out the extent of who has lien rights:
Any person who performs, furnishes, or procures any work, labor, service, materials, plans, or specifications, used or consumed for the improvement of land, and who complies with s. 779.02 shall have a lien therefore on all interests in the land belonging to its owners.
It is noteworthy that the statute defines it as “any person,” not limiting those rights just to General Contractors. Therefore, within the scope of the rest of the Wisconsin statutes, sub-contractors may have certain lien rights.
What those lien rights are and what notice requirements there are depends on the type of project. A “public works” project, defined as any improvement or work undertaken by a unit of government, will potentially have different lien rights and notice requirements for sub-contractors than a “large private” project (which may have notice requirements as short as 5 months from the date the work is performed). “Privately bonded” cases may eliminate all lien rights and instead require any claims to be made pursuant to the bonding contract.
In any case, if you are a sub-contractor and you believe you might have lien rights on a project, it is important to contact an attorney right away as the specifics of your project will bear on whether you have lien rights and what you have to do to preserve them.