In the wake of Gourmet Heaven owner Chung Cho’s recent arrest, students, community members and city leaders are pushing Yale to monitor its tenants more closely.
In August the Connecticut Department of Labor found that Gourmet Heaven, which leases two sites from Yale University Properties, was mistreating workers and paying them under the minimum wage — as low as $4.44 an hour. Cho agreed to a $140,000 settlement with the DOL, but he made scheduled payments several weeks late and continued to pay improper overtime.
The DOL arrested Cho in late February on 22 felony charges, 20 misdemeanor charges and 10 violations. One of the felony charges is first-degree larceny, which carries a penalty of one to 20 years’ imprisonment and/or a $15,000 fine.
Joining a rising chorus of city leaders, Mayor Toni Harp ARC ’78 called on Yale to monitor the wages of workers on University-owned properties in order to avoid future incidents.
“They probably could exercise more oversight. They have very strong contracts with their business owners,” she said. “We would just hope they would oversee those so that this embarrassing condition doesn’t exist anymore there or at any of their other facilities.”
University Spokesman Tom Conroy said Yale condemns the unfair labor practices and exploitation at the local grocer, but it would be “impossible” to keep tabs on all 80 tenants’ compliance with the law. He said that it is the responsibility of governmental authorities to make sure that businesses follow the law.
He added that the University has not yet decided whether it will renew Gourmet Heaven’s lease in 2016.
Over the past two decades, Yale has accumulated roughly 80 sites near campus, on Broadway Avenue, Chapel Street and Whalley Avenue in an effort to improve town-gown relations and revitalize the neighborhoods surrounding campus. Gourmet Heaven first leased a space from University Properties in 2001.
Former mayoral candidate Henry Fernandez LAW ’94, who used to be the city’s economic development administrator, said part of Yale’s reason for investing in the city was to create a certain image around campus that would appeal to wealthy students, faculty and alumni. In order to maintain that image, he said, the University has strict lease policies, requiring businesses to stay open for longer hours and to maintain an elegant facade.
Because the University requires such strict policies in its leases, he added, it could also include provisions that would help employees.
“They should take ownership of the fact that some very hard working people were exploited by one of their stores,” Fernandez said. “A store that they recruited, a store that is in most people’s minds heavily connected to the image the University has created in downtown.”
Fernandez said he believes Yale should also ensure that its tenants pay a living wage of $15 per hour. He said the minimum wage is not enough for the average New Haven resident to live and that the University should use its power to raise the city out of poverty.
In response to Fernandez’ public call for a living wage, Conroy said requiring some New Haven businesses to operate under different rules than its competition does not make sense from an economics standpoint.
“Businesses should be given the opportunity to succeed or fail on a level playing field,” he said. “The people of Connecticut should decide the minimum wage and other work-related regulations.”
Organizers who brought attention to the issue at Gourmet Heaven are also calling on Yale to take action.
In a press conference at police headquarters last Wednesday, the New Haven Police Department, the Board of Alders, the DOL, workers and Unidad Latina en Accion activists announced their plans to collaborate to form a procedure for dealing with endemic wage theft in New Haven.
ULA activist Megan Fountain ’07 said she hopes City Hall will partner with them to find an effective way to tackle the issue. She added that for Yale to effectively monitor businesses, University Properties would have to take time to speak to workers.
“I don’t know how he’s going to monitor businesses if he won’t even talk to the workers,” she said. “The Gourmet Heaven case has demonstrated that you can’t monitor a business just by talking to the boss. I hope they will reach out and partner with workers and community organizations.”
Fountain said the future of fair labor on Yale’s campus will be up to the students, as they are in a position to demand better workplace environments from the administration.
Evelyn Nunez ’15, president of campus social justice group MEChA, will be meeting with Vice President of New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander ’65 soon to discuss the issue. She said that while University Properties has shown interest in the case, they have not offered any concrete statement or plan of action.
“We’re calling for University Properties to be more accountable for the businesses on campus,” she said. “Yale should set an example by advocating for fair working conditions, and ensure that workers on [its] property aren’t being paid poverty wages and aren’t struggling to survive like other low-wage workers.”
University Properties was established in 1996.