Protestors call for Gourmet Heaven boycott

Protestors gathered Friday afternoon on Broadway to call for fair treatment of allegedly exploited Gourmet Heaven workers.
Protestors gathered Friday afternoon on Broadway to call for fair treatment of allegedly exploited Gourmet Heaven workers. Photo by Isaac Stanley-Becker.

As campus swarmed on Friday for freshman move-in day, protestors gathered on Broadway Avenue outside Gourmet Heaven to ask students to boycott the popular late-night food destination under investigation for a slew of workplace violations.

In a demonstration organized by the New Haven Workers Association, roughly 25 protesters marched in a circle outside the entrance of the combined restaurant and convenience store, brandishing signs condemning the establishment’s alleged wage theft and chanting for workplace justice.

“Students are standing in solidarity with the workers,” Evelyn Nunez ’14, a leader of the Chicano student organization MEChA, said at Friday’s protest. “Yale students should say no to G-Heav.”

Following a tip from a former employee, the Connecticut Department of Labor found that the business had misclassified at least 15 employees as independent contractors, thus withholding overtime compensation and failing to pay them the minimum wage, according to an Aug. 7 state Department of Labor press release.

An investigation into the business’ adherence to the state’s wage and workforce regulations is underway and is expected to conclude within the next two weeks, said Nancy Steffen, spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor. She declined to comment on initial findings.

Addressing the crowd at Friday’s protest, Nunez alleged that Gourmet Heaven had forced employees to work 72-hour weeks while paying them less than $4 an hour. The minimum wage in Connecticut is $8.25.

“This is a case where an employer is taking unfair advantage of his employees and also cheating the state by not paying the proper taxes or providing worker protections, such as unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation,” State Labor Commissioner Sharon M. Palmer said in the initial state Department of Labor press release.

Chung H. Cho, the owner of Gourmet Heaven and a resident of Woodbridge, did not return repeated requests for comment.

Gary Pechie, director of the Wage and Workplace Standards Division of the Labor Department, said that Gourmet Heaven will get slapped with a $300 fine for every single week an employee was working while not on the proper payroll, which could amount to “tens of thousands of dollars.”

In addition to potential fines, both Gourmet Heaven locations in New Haven — the site of Friday’s protest and its counterpart on Whitney Avenue — were temporarily shut down on Aug. 7 after the employer could not provide the requisite payroll and time records on site. They were allowed to reopen the same day after the owner’s lawyer, John DeSimone, turned over the proper records.

Megan Fountain, the protest’s organizer, said she fears Cho is attempting to obstruct the state’s investigation.

“We want the owner to fully cooperate with the investigation and to stop intimidating his workers and telling them to fabricate evidence for him,” Fountain said.

Clerks working at the store Friday afternoon said they were asked not to speak about the investigation.

Gerado Sedeno, an employee on the late shift at the Gourmet Heaven located at 44 Whitney Ave., said earlier in August that he thinks he has always been paid as a regular employee and not as an independent contractor.

Gourmet Heaven, like many of the commercial establishments on Broadway, occupies Yale-owned real estate managed by University Properties. Fountain said Yale, as the landlord, should pressure its tenant to commit to fair labor practices.

University spokesman Tom Conroy said only “Gourmet Heaven management and the labor department” could speak to the ongoing dispute.

“Yale has no involvement in this matter,” he said in an email to the News.

Protesters said they will return every Friday at 4 p.m. until they are satisfied with how Gourmet Heaven is treating its workers.

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