Holding up signs encouraging Yale students to end their Gourmet Heaven boycott, workers at the New Haven and Providence stores and some of their family members chanted “Leave!” in Spanish, drowning out the activists’ usual chants.
About 20 Gourmet Heaven employees came out Friday at 5:30 to counter activists’ and fired workers’ weekly picket of the popular campus deli. Gourmet Heaven, which the Connecticut Department of Labor charged with committing wage theft over several years, has four locations, two in New Haven and two in Providence, R.I. The current workers contended they are being treated fairly by their employer, distributing pamphlets alleging that ULA has been lying about the wage theft and that all employees are making legal wages.
“They say they want to help us but they’re actually screwing us over,” said Reynaldo Garcia, an employee who has worked at Gourmet Heaven for two years. “We’re doing this to defend our jobs. We had no problems or complaints.”
Employees said they were worried that the diminished business from the boycott would cause them to lose their jobs. Activists from La Unidad Latina en Accion and MEChA de Yale began the boycott and have been picketing weekly since August in reaction to the DOL’s confirmation of wage theft. Workers told the News last month that prior to a Department of Labor investigation that began in July, they had been making weekly salaries as low as $320 for 72 hours of work.
Gourmet Heaven owner Chung Cho is still working to pay $140,000 in unpaid wages and overtime to more than two dozen workers, as mandated by the DOL settlement. Several of the workers at the counter protest said they had received back paychecks.
But in an interview with current staff members at the Broadway location Friday afternoon, none of the roughly 20 workers present said they had ever been paid lower than the minimum wage. Current employees said that even though Cho had been paying some workers who were not present at the interview under minimum wage, he had also provided cheap housing and free food, making the job better than others available to them.
Three workers at the interview presented paychecks proving they were being paid at or above the minimum wage, which is now $8.70 an hour in Connecticut.
“If they didn’t pay us enough we would be out there protesting too. No one would be here,” said Tania Vidales, a cashier of two years.
The employees said that the former workers allied with the activists were taking advantage of the owner and seeking free money.
“G-Heav doesn’t deserve anything bad. We’re like a family here,” said Mohammed Masau, an employee of 14 years. “We need Yale to know we are treated really well, especially by the owner.”
Activists continue to protest the deli in response to reports of continued wage theft among the lower-paid workers, and the allegedly unlawful firings of four workers who testified separately to the DOL in November. The DOL is currently investigating these claims, which if found true, could mean steep consequences including more fines and potentially criminal charges for the owner.
The former workers, who are all related to the worker who filed the original complaint in July, are also filing a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities in reaction to the discrimination they say they faced in the workplace due to their indigenous heritage.
Activists argued that the counter protest was merely a publicity stunt to improve the image of the deli in the wake of these recent allegations and revelations.
“It’s a good tactic and it’s causing some confusion,” said ULA activist John Lugo. “This is not first time it’s been used to divide the workers.”
Additionally, ULA activist Megan Fountain ’07 said she has spoken to three current employees who said they were forced to go and demonstrate by the management.
She said the boycott will continue until the DOL resolves its investigation into the allegations of retaliatory dismissals and continuing cash payments of wages.
“I think that the management is scared because they’re in hot water with the government and with the community, and unfortunately they’re responding by instilling fear in the workers,” she said.
Protestors will continue their weekly picket of Gourmet Heaven every Friday at 5:30 p.m.