“There is a student labor movement in this town!” yells Gregory Williams DIV ’15 into a megaphone to a group of students in front of Gourmet Heaven. “We’ve made our choice to be on the side of justice.”
Williams, a member of the graduate student group Seminarians for a Democratic Society, is one of the main organizers of a weekly protest outside the Broadway convenience store. A number of Yale students and New Haven residents have led a boycott on the business since the Department of Labor found in early August that franchise owner Chung Cho had been paying several workers less than the state minimum wage, has withheld overtime pay and has failed to keep proper payroll records.
Local and national labor and immigrant advocacy organizations have publicized one former worker’s allegations of Gourmet Heaven’s illegal wage practices. Evelyn Nunez ’15 — the community action chair for MEChA, a U.S. Latino social justice student organization — said that workers have been mistreated on the job, forced to work 12-hour shifts without rest. The worker who filed the official complaint to the DOL further alleged that Cho has been intimidating workers within the store and in his role as landlord of a property in which several employees live.
Gary Pechie, director of the DOL’s Wage and Workplace Standards Division, said he is certain that the workers were underpaid and that Cho will have to reimburse them fully through the department’s wage recovery program. He added that he hopes to finish the investigation in a month.
“At this point it’s a matter of deciding how much they need to be paid back,” he said.
Williams said he calculated that the unpaid wages for the one employee who came forward amounted to $10,730.24. In addition to back pay, Cho will also have to pay several enforcement fines to the DOL. Pechie, who is meeting with the employees and Cho’s attorneys this week, said that Gourmet Heaven will be fined $300 per person not on payroll records.
“Every cent needs to come back,” he said.
Wage theft is a perennial issue for the state, Pechie said. This year alone, the DOL recovered $6.5 million in unpaid wages for 3,700 Connecticut workers according to a release from Gov. Daniel Malloy. The Wage and Workplace Standards Division still has 1,300 more complaints on their plate.
“If we had more staff, we could have recovered a lot more,” Pechie said.
Though wage theft is a felony, Pechie said most offending employers are not prosecuted unless they completely refuse to cooperate with authorities on investigations and settlements. Local labor activists allege that wage theft can still be profitable for businesses.
Megan Fountain ’07 — a volunteer for the New Haven Workers’ Association, the organization leading the movement against wage theft in New Haven — said a municipal ordinance making wage theft illegal at the city level would help alleviate the problem, as the New Haven Police Department could then prosecute employers who underpay workers.
“Wage theft continues because employers see Department of Labor sanctions as a slap on the wrist,” she said.
Fountain added that the issue is “much more widespread than people think.” According to a 2009 study conducted by the National Employment Law Project, 26 percent of workers in low-wage jobs surveyed were paid under the minimum wage in the preceding week. The study also reported that foreign-born Latino workers had the highest rate of wage violation.
Labor activists said the boycott on Gourmet Heaven intends to punish the store financially in a way that they fear the Department of Labor will not.
Williams said the weekly protests — every Friday at 5:30 p.m. — not only serve to discourage customers from buying food at Gourmet Heaven, but also “send a message to the city government that we need to punish wage theft.”
But outside of the labor activist community, the boycott is far from unanimously supported.
Andre Presse, a visiting scholar from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology studying progressive labor policy, was on his way to buy a snack at the market when he saw the picket. After talking briefly to a protester about the issue, he entered Gourmet Heaven and bought his food.
“It doesn’t help them systematically if no one goes — they’ll lose their job and the small amount of income they make,” he said.
Murat Tetik, a cook at the A-One Pizzeria neighboring Gourmet Heaven on Broadway, also opposes the boycott. He said that while “it’s not right to withhold wages,” he does not know why workers would accept pay that low to begin with. He also mentioned that a former employee at his restaurant worked for more than minimum wage at A-One and left for Gourmet Heaven since they offered him better pay.
Harron Gaston, a Divinity School student representing the Gaston Justice Coalition Group, said that his faith has inspired him to stand on the side of the “poor and dispossessed.”
“Plan to stay there as long as it takes until a decision comes down that we can live with,” he said.