Gourmet Heaven has come under heightened scrutiny for firing four workers, allegedly in retaliation for their cooperation with the Department of Labor investigation of wage theft.
On Wednesday, the four workers demonstrated alongside student and community activists in front of the restaurant, in a rally organized by La Unidad Latina en Accion, the New Haven Workers’ Association and MEChA de Yale. This was the first time the workers, who asked to remain anonymous, participated in the protests, which started in August, against labor violations at the restaurant.
“I and three other coworkers were fired this Christmas for cooperating with the Department of Labor investigation. After being a good worker for so many years my only mistake was to do the right thing,” one former worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “Legally I can claim only for the last two years of unpaid wages, but I have worked here for 7 years. Can you imagine how much [owner] Chung Cho has stolen from me? Mr. Cho has gotten rich from our stolen money.”
After the speeches, he and another worker, followed by the press, entered the building to demand their jobs back. Neither the manager nor the owner appeared. “Shame on Gourmet Heaven,” the protestors chanted as the workers left the restaurant.
According to Connecticut labor law, employers may not base any dismissal or suspension on the fact that an employee reported a violation, said Gary Pechie, head of the DOL’s division of Wage and Workplace Standards. If the firings are found to be retaliatory, he said, the issue will go up further to the state Labor Commissioner.
After DOL investigators concluded that Gourmet Heaven had been paying workers under minimum wage over the course of several years, Cho agreed to pay 25 workers a total of $140,000 in back wages, as well as $10,200 in fines to the DOL. These back wages only cover a fraction of each worker’s period of employment.
Cho paid the first installment of $50,000 last month but has not yet paid the second installment that was due on Jan. 6.
“Refusing to pay wages is a criminal violation,” Pechie said. “We’re notifying the employer’s attorney … We thought we had a settlement.”
Workers said they did not originally tell the DOL investigators the full extent of the wage theft when the investigation first began because the manager had intimidated them into silence.
But after organizing amongst themselves and working with La Unidad Latina en Accion, eleven workers met with DOL investigators on Nov. 26 and testified that they had been paid between $4.16 and $6.25 per hour for three to eight years.
They also informed the DOL at this meeting that they were being underpaid for their overtime hours. The owner was paying them at a reduced wage off the books in cash for working longer than 40 hours, they testified, prompting DOL attorneys to investigate the fresh allegations.
“The owner is playing with the law,” said one worker.
Workers said that when the owner found out about the meeting, the manager started telling them that “chismosos” — a term meaning “snitches” — would be punished. When the four workers reported to their shifts on Jan. 3, the manager told them they had been replaced.
The workers who were fired suspect they were chosen out of the eleven who spoke to the DOL because of their relation to the former worker who filed the original complaint against the restaurant in July. Two of the workers are his uncles and the other two are his brothers.
“They are trying to scare the other workers,” said one. “[The workers] are afraid of being fired like us. It’s so hard to find a job, and no matter where they go they know they will still get exploited.”
“90 percent of these restaurants do this,” he added,
Two of the workers said that after their firing, they have had to take jobs that pay under minimum wage — one at an unspecified restaurant on university-owned property. They said it is very hard to go through with a DOL complaint without community support, and are undecided about what to do at their new jobs.
Joe Foran, a member of the Amistad Catholic Workers’ House and La Unidad Latina en Accion, said that it was important to hold the university accountable for their stated position on not leasing property to businesses that do not pay fair wages.
In a statement to student leaders in MEChA, Yale Vice President Bruce Alexander said, “We strongly condemn unfair labor practices and will not renew the lease of any tenant not in complete compliance with the labor laws regarding fair treatment of employees.”
The four fired workers also said they were the target of harassment and disparaging comments from the manager because of their indigenous heritage. La Unidad Latina en Accion organizer John Jairo Lugo said they are considering filing a complaint with the CT Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, which handles instances of racial discrimination.
Reed Bobroff ’16, manager of the Blue Feather Drum Group and former president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale, spoke over a bullhorn about the necessity for solidarity among indigenous peoples of the Americas. He and other members of the drum group sang and led protestors in a round dance, a common Native demonstration of unity.
MEChA moderator Evelyn Nuñez ’15 encouraged protestors and students to continue to picket and boycott the popular campus deli.
“We are not going to back down,” she said. “We can all contribute by not shopping at this establishment anymore. We have a responsibility to this community and I ask you to think about that.”
Protestors will continue their weekly picket of Gourmet Heaven every Friday at 5:30 p.m.
Gourmet Heaven has four locations in New Haven and Providence, R.I.