The boycott of Gourmet Heaven, which began last week after the Connecticut Department of Labor announced that the popular convenience store is under investigation for workplace violations, continued last Friday with a protest that supporters said will repeat every week until employees receive back pay.
The allegations stem from a complaint filed by a former employee of the 24-hour convenience store and suggest longstanding practices of wage theft and poor working conditions. The complainant, a worker named Adin who asked that his full name be omitted for issues related to his immigration status, said he left Gourmet Heaven after management declined to raise his salary to the legal minimum wage. Approximately 25 protesters gathered outside of the store’s Broadway location Friday to call for the Yale and New Haven communities to utilize their leverage over the business and demand improved working conditions.
“Mr. Cho thinks that it’s okay to pay workers between $5 and $6 an hour,” alleged protester Evelyn Nunez ’15, referring to the establishment’s owner, Chung Cho. “Yale students are not going to buy at establishments that don’t pay minimum wage.”
Cho could not be reached for comment.
Those who gathered outside of Gourmet Heaven on Friday included Yale students and New Haven activists who decided to join the circle of protesters. They carried signs with messages such as, “Our sweat is not for free,” and “G-Hell,” while chanting “Ho, Ho, Hey, Hey, Gourmet Heaven has got to pay.”
The protests will continue every Friday afternoon until workers are paid legal wages and compensated with backpay, said Megan Fountain ’07, an organizer for New Haven-based immigrant rights advocacy group Unidad Latina en Accion. She added that there may be more than one protest a week in the future and that she expects more people to join in the demonstrations.
“Rain or shine … we’re in this for the long haul,” Fountain said.
After working in five downtown New Haven restaurants, Adin claims to have earned less than the legal minimum wage in all but one of them. Adin, who worked at Gourmet Heaven for 11 months in 2012, said he was initially paid $360 per week at the Broadway restaurant and began earning $400 per week when he switched to working night shifts.
The figures, which compensated Adin for six 12-hour shifts per week, or 72 hours in total, put his hourly wage at $5.00 or $5.56 per hour, respectively. Connecticut’s current minimum wage is $8.25 per hour. After Adin asked Cho to raise his wage to the legal minimum, the owner offered to pay him an extra $20 per week, at which point Adin decided to leave and Cho “became furious.”
“The owner didn’t want me to go,” Adin said. “They offered me a $20 raise.”
In an interview with the News, Adin described the off-the-books employment system that allows Cho to pay Gourmet Heaven employees well below the legal minimum wage. According to Adin, approximately 14 workers are employed at the store’s Broadway location at any given time, with slightly fewer employed at the Whitney location.
Adin said that the store is divided into four sections — the cash register, the kitchen, the sandwich counter and shelf stocking. Employees, according to Adin, work anywhere from eight to 12 hour shifts.
Six of the store’s employees, Adin said, lived in a single room of the basement of a building owned by Cho, for which they each paid $50 per week. The room, which according to Adin’s descriptions was likely no more than 450 square feet, was divided into separate spaces with curtains and pieces of cardboard. Adin said that after leaving his employment at Gourmet Heaven, Cho immediately evicted him.
Adin is currently the only complainant, and he attributed the lack of additional complainants to wage disparities among the employees and fears of employment termination. According to the former employee, the workers earning more money are unsupportive of the others and therefore unwilling to demand improved working conditions. When asked why he did not file a complaint earlier, Adin said that he was unfamiliar with Connecticut’s labor laws.
“To be honest, there was a time when I didn’t know anything about this or about my rights,” Adin said.
On Aug. 30, Gov. Dannel Malloy announced that the state of Connecticut recovered more than $6.5 million in previously unpaid wages for workers.