The story behind Gourmet Heaven employees’ rally to restore the reputation of the store is proving more complicated. Recent allegations from a current employee who said he felt pressured to participate reveal a split in workers’ opinions on the boycott and weekly picket initiated by activists in August.
The employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said that several of the workers in the rally supported the boycott of Gourmet Heaven started by Unidad Latina en Accion, a labor activist organization, but were pressured into participating in the store’s reimaging campaign. The boycott began in August in response to charges of wage theft from the Department of Labor as well as allegations of the management mistreating workers and firing four former employees in retaliation for cooperating with the DOL. But on Friday, about 20 Gourmet Heaven employees, friends and family members called for an end to the boycott, saying they were afraid diminished business would leave them jobless and that ULA’s and workers’ allegations were false.
“I support the boycott — the owner has abused us too much,” the anonymous employee told the News Monday morning. “But if we didn’t go to the demonstration, they would suspect our involvement with ULA.”
He said that the management has explicitly stated that any worker who was discovered to be in cooperation with the organization would be fired, or given work so tedious that they would wish to quit.
He entered the ULA office at the New Haven People’s Center, where the interview took place, through the back door to avoid detection.
“You never know if they have people watching because they know where this office is. It could be anyone out there on the street,” he said. “The workers are scared and they don’t tell about what is happening to them.”
He said that his work conditions have not significantly improved since the DOL investigation. While workers are making at least minimum wage, $8.70 an hour, he said some are still being paid partially in cash.
Tasks that were once performed by two employees are now performed by one in order to cut down on personnel costs, making the work per hour much heavier than before.
He also said it is hard to know who to trust, as he fears the workers have been “divided and conquered” by the owner.
“Instead of doing what’s right and delivering justice as mandated by the DOL, the owner is dividing workers and causing fear,” said Megan Fountain ’07, a ULA activist.
These statements are in direct contrast to the narrative of Friday’s rally, in which workers wholeheartedly supported their employer Chung Cho.
“Leave us alone, let us work, we’re not harming anyone,” said Tania Vidales, cashier of two years at the Broadway Street Gourmet Heaven, on Friday. “[These employees] need the jobs. We’re all happy and we don’t complain. We don’t want this boycott.”
In an interview on Friday before the rally, current employees also said that the protestors were being overly aggressive toward customers during the weekly pickets and unfairly accusing the manager of being a criminal for his treatment of the workers. They held signs inviting students into the deli and distributed pamphlets alleging that activists were lying about the wage theft and mistreatment of workers.
The store’s management declined to comment further on Monday. But activists said they are not planning to give up the cause. A former worker who asked to be identified only by his first name, Julio, said he had joined La Unidad Latina en Accion in their weekly protests after being fired on grounds now under investigation by the Labor Commissioner.
“Our intention is not to close the store,” said Julio, “We want people to know what is going on and to judge for themselves. All we want is for them to treat the workers better.”
Evelyn Nunez ’15, moderator of MEChA de Yale, said students will continue to find ways to publicly demonstrate their support for workers seeking justice, despite the complication.
Julio said he believes only a handful of workers at the rally were actually from the Broadway location, and that he would continue to support his former co-workers on the inside.
“I’ll keep demonstrating until the owner starts treating the workers better and until they are paid fair wages,” he said. “Not just at Gourmet Heaven but for the workers of New Haven — this happens everywhere.”
Yale University Properties, which manages the lease of the building in which the store is located, has made a public statement against wage theft on Yale property but has not taken action so far.
Gourmet Heaven has locations in New Haven and in Providence, RI.
Correction: Jan. 28
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that some Gourmet Heaven workers were paid wholly in cash. In fact they are only paid partly in cash.