Gourmet Heaven owner Chung Cho, who is facing charges of wage theft that occurred at Broadway location, appeared in court Tuesday morning for his scheduled plea hearing, only to have his attorney negotiate yet another delay.
Cho was arrested on Feb. 20 on 42 wage theft and fraud charges and then again four days later for 10 additional discrimination and payroll violations. Twenty-one of the charges are felonies. He was originally scheduled to appear at New Haven Superior Court on March 4, but his attorney, David Leff, pushed the hearing to Tuesday. After a brief conversation with prosecutor Joseph LaMotta at this second hearing, Leff negotiated another delay.
As Cho ascended the stairs of the court building Tuesday morning, he walked through the small crowd of former workers with his eyes averted and head bowed.
About 20 demonstrators — among them Yale students, activists and four former Gourmet Heaven employees — greeted him with the chant: “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” But they are not expecting Cho to go to trial in the near future. Lugo said it is customary for defendants to prolong cases as long as they can to wear down prosecutors and ride out community pressure.
“We want to show the court that this matters to us and we’re not going to simply accept any decision,” said Julio Olivar, a former Gourmet Heaven employer, who Cho fired in January after he testified separately to the DOL. “We want to be sure that Cho understands and learns a lesson.”
Israel Tovar ’17, a member of student activist group MEChA, which has demonstrated in support of Gourmet Heaven workers since the initial complaints in August, believes Cho is avoiding going to trial until students are gone on summer break. Though he said the wait frustrates him, he said he will keep demonstrating until Cho pays the workers and creates a better environment in the store.
Román Castellanos ’15, another MEChA member present at the protest, said many student activists will be on campus through the summer and continue to demonstrate on behalf of the workers.
“Just because he’s going to trial doesn’t mean we are going to give this up,” he said. “It’s important to show that the students still care.”
The demonstrators plan to confront Cho at the courthouse again on April 29 at 10 a.m., and at any future court appearance. They will also continue to boycott Gourmet Heaven.
After finding that Cho had underpaid over two dozen GHeav workers, the DOL and Cho’s lawyers negotiated a settlement that he would pay workers $150,000 in back wages, in addition to a $10,000 penalty. The payment was to be made in three installments earlier this year, but Cho made two of his three payments weeks late, Gary Pechie, the head of the Wage and Workplace Standards Division, told the News in February.
The DOL considered this behavior non-compliance, leading the agency to press the criminal charges that resulted in his two arrests.
Because Cho failed to honor his settlement with the DOL, he now owes workers a total of $233,000 with interest, said Blair Bertaccini, one of the agents that led the GHeav investigation. Interest is calculated based on how many months ago the minimum wage was not paid, up to two years. For back wages he has owed for a month, the interest rate is 1 percent; for back wages he has owed for a year, the interest rate is 12 percent.
This new total, which could amount to almost double the original settlement, will be dispersed among current and former employees who were victims of wage theft, said Lisa Staziani, head of the Wage and Workplace Standards Division’s fraud unit.
“What he’s paying now is only a fraction of what he owes me,” Olivar said. “I can only request two years’ worth of back pay, but I worked for seven.”
Since Gourmet Heaven came under investigation, at least a dozen other restaurants and stores downtown have been issued stop work orders by the DOL, responding to a wave of complaints from workers and competing business owners, according to Staziani. One of them, J & B Deli, which she confirmed was paying workers in cash under the minimum wage, rents space from Yale University Properties.
All of the businesses served stop work orders came into compliance with DOL regulations and are once more operational, Staziani said.
The DOL has issued stop work orders to over 1,300 businesses in the state of Connecticut for labor violations in the past five years.