A kind of acceptance around Gourmet Heaven has settled in amongst students. The stores’ unfair labor practices come up much less in conversation and only small numbers are continuing to boycott. But we should not allow ourselves to forget that GHeav is continuing to treat its workers abysmally, and we should continue to exercise our power to voice our discontent through a boycott.
When the Department of Labor issued GHeav a stop work order last August, the business was accused of failing to pay minimum wage or overtime, illegally classifying workers as “independent contractors” and failing to maintain payroll records. Further investigations concluded that workers were being paid between four and six dollars per hour, far under the Connecticut minimum wage of $8.25. Six employees were being housed in a small room in owner Chung Cho’s basement where they were paying $50 a week in rent.
The first weekly student picket outside of the Broadway GHeav location took place on freshman move-in day, and the protests have continued on Friday afternoons over the last several months. Approximately 25 to 40 students have shown up to each protest, a small number when compared to the entire student body, but still significant.
On Nov. 14, a settlement was reached with GHeav in which the business agreed to pay $140,000 in back pay as well as a $10,200 penalty. Due to bad record keeping, it is unclear if that $140,000 legitimately covers all of the money GHeav employees are owed. Additionally, the back pay only extends back two years, meaning that employees who have worked at the establishment for over two years are not being compensated for their earlier work.
To make matters worse, this month it was discovered that GHeav fired four workers after they testified for the Department of Labor that they were being paid under minimum wage. A manager told the workers that the owner was on to them and that they would be punished for their actions. On Jan. 3, they were fired. Needless to say, Connecticut law explicitly prohibits this type of employer retaliation.
The weekly protests have continued, but the attitude of the general student body has appeared to grow more and more apathetic. While the prospect of boycotting for a few weeks at the start of the year seemed reasonable to many, at this point, few seem to be actively participating. This past weekend, large numbers of students lined up to make late-night food purchases. A general consensus seems to have arisen that although GHeav’s labor violations are a problem, the bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches are impossible to resist.
A New Haven Independent article last week revealed just how apathetic students have become. A Yale junior explained his rationale behind crossing the picket line and purchasing a sandwich: “I’m doing me. The Department of Labor will do them.” He told the Independent that GHeav’s labor violations would “probably get fixed up soon,” a strange belief given that the business has continued violating Connecticut labor laws since the initial investigation.
Some students have chosen not to boycott out of a concern for the workers, operating under the belief that reduced business will only lead to more employees getting fired. But a week after the settlement, workers told the News that they would like to see more students boycotting, as it sends a powerful message to management. They also said that they could not discuss this with students who asked questions at the store, as they were being closely monitored with surveillance cameras.
Given GHeav’s continued mistreatment of its employees, students should actively choose to boycott both locations until the business is operating within Connecticut labor regulations. Not shopping at GHeav is by no means as difficult as many make it out to be — there are numerous food stores on the same block, as well as more than a dozen Yale dining halls within walking distance.
Beyond boycotting GHeav, as students we should be sure to exert pressure on another key player in the situation: Yale. University Properties issued a statement last October saying that Yale would not renew the lease of any tenant that did not comply with state labor laws. Last week, Yale issued another statement, saying, “We do not condone unfair labor practices, and as Gourmet Heaven’s landlord, our recourse is not to renew their lease unless Gourmet Heaven is in compliance with the state’s requirements.”
The fact that GHeav’s issues with the Department of Labor have gone on for several months now should not be reason for students to forget what has happened. Instead, our reaction should be to hold the University accountable for its statements on the GHeav lease and to boycott the establishment that has mistreated its workers for years on end.
Diana Rosen is a sophomore in Pierson College. Her columns run on Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.