Cho faces additional charges

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Photo by Jacob Geiger .

After posting a $5,000 bond in cash after his initial arrest, Gourmet Heaven owner Chung Cho was arrested for the second time on Monday for five violations of illegal discrimination against workers and five violations of failure to keep wage records between Nov. 22 and Jan. 19.

Cho was arrested for the first time last Thursday on 42 felony and misdemeanor charges for wage theft committed throughout 2013.

In light of both arrests, the New Haven Police Department hosted a press conference at their headquarters Wednesday afternoon, where Board of Alders President Jorge Perez, representatives from the Department of Labor, labor advocates and former Gourmet Heaven workers met with media to announce their resolve to end wage theft in the city.

“New Haven is making wage theft a priority,” said DOL investigator Blair Bertaccini, who led the Gourmet Heaven investigation. “We want to create a level playing field so law-abiding employers don’t have to compete with cheaters.”

After workers’ complaints of being paid under minimum wage initiated a DOL investigation in August, Cho was discovered to be paying workers in cash at wages as low as $4.44 an hour, with no overtime. Cho reached a settlement with the DOL in November to pay $140,000 in back wages to 25 workers in three installments at the beginning of the year.

But he was one week late on the first payment and three weeks late on the second payment, at which point the DOL decided to press criminal charges for not complying with the resolution on which they had agreed, said Gary Pechie, head of the DOL’s wage and workplace standards division.

Pechie said arrest is only used in about 1 percent of the 5,000 cases he sees per year.

“We never press charges immediately. We always give employers time to comply and to rectify the situation,” Pechie said. “If we went immediately to prosecution we’d be in court all day long. But you simply cannot make a settlement with us and then not live up to it.”

Even after they agreed on the settlement in November, Cho allegedly continued to pay some workers overtime in cash off the books. Workers continued to tell the News that the management mistreated them and intimidated them into underreporting labor violations to the DOL.

In January, four workers alleged that they had been fired in retaliation for testifying to the DOL, sparking outrage from Yale students and community organizers from Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA), the grassroots organization that has led a boycott and weekly pickets in front of the store since August. The state’s Labor Commission is still investigating this claim.

The NHPD, the DOL and the workers thanked ULA activists for their efforts over the past half year.

“We’re trying to fight for all workers in New Haven. They deserve fair wages for their hard work,” said Julio Olivar, one of the workers who was fired after working at Gourmet Heaven for over seven years.

Megan Fountain, an ULA organizer, said it will be up to students to decide whether they want to support a business that has proven itself incapable of complying with minimum labor standards.

Pechie said Gourmet Heaven’s future is now in the hands of Yale University Properties, who are in charge of the store’s lease. On behalf of University Properties, Vice President Bruce Alexander issued a statement in the fall saying that they “will not renew the lease of any tenant not in complete compliance with the labor laws regarding fair treatment of employees.”

Alexander could not be reached for comment.

Most of Cho’s felony charges carry penalties of up to 5 years in jail and/or $5,000 fines. Because the sum of wages stolen exceeds $10,000, he also faces a charge of first-degree larceny, which carries a penalty of 1 to 20 years imprisonment and/or a $15,000 fine.

The misdemeanors are punishable by up to one year imprisonment and/or a $2,000 fine. The violations with which he was most recently charged are civil violations and will be handled by the State Infractions Bureau.

Bertaccini said that it is likely that Cho will take a plea bargain.

In both arrests, he was notified of the warrant for his arrest and turned himself in to the police. For both his Thursday and Monday arrests, he posted his $5,000 bond in cash.

Now that the case has been turned over to criminal prosecutors, it is out of the DOL’s jurisdiction. Pechie said that, for the time being, the DOL cannot distribute the remainder of the back wages, leaving workers in limbo.

“We continued to receive information that he was still violating the law,” Pechie said. “He didn’t seem to understand the gravity of charges he could be facing.”

At the press conference, NHPD officers expressed their intention to contribute to the city’s efforts to eradicate wage theft, which activists at the conference called “rampant” in New Haven.

“We have made a commitment to the DOL and the people of the community to do everything we can to assist their efforts to stop wage theft,” said Assistant Chief of Police Achilles Generoso. “If there is a violation of the law, NHPD will see that justice is served.”

Cho’s arraignment will occur on March 4.

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Blair Bertaccini.

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