A group of Gourmet Heaven employees spoke out Tuesday in an exclusive interview with the News about their experiences working for the deli, which the state of Connecticut found guilty of wage theft in August.

Several current employees, speaking in Spanish and on the condition that their names and home countries would not be revealed for fear of retribution from the management of Gourmet Heaven, detailed the poor conditions, wage theft and employer intimidation that they have faced while employed there. When the State Department of Labor opened an investigation into the establishment this August in response to a complaint filed by a former employee, workers alleged that management pressured them to lie to investigators that they were working 40 hours a week at minimum wage.

In reality, they said, they were working up to 72 hours a week — with starting salaries as low as $320 per week. Moreover, the workers said they send between $400–$500 home to support their families every 15 days, leaving little left for their own expenses, including rent.

Despite the job’s long hours and low pay, the employees said economic necessity has compelled them to continue working.

“I had to pay rent, and it was the only secure job available,” one of the workers said. “The only good thing about [Gourmet Heaven] is that there is always work.”

Though the Department of Labor has required owner Chung Cho to pay workers minimum wage and overtime, the situation has in some ways worsened for them since the investigation began, they said. Some workers were laid off, and others saw their hours reduced, resulting in an increased workload for each remaining employee, they said. Some tasks that were once shared by two workers are now expected to be completed by one.

“The owner treats you like you’re a tool, as if you don’t have feelings or get tired,” an employee said.

The employees said they are now taking home smaller paychecks than before, some as little as $300 per week. In addition, the Department of Labor has not yet processed the employees’ backpay, which activists from Unidad Latina en Acción estimated to total over $10,000 for some employees.

The group of workers met with local activists from La Unidad Latina en Acción and Yale’s chapter of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, or MEChA, on Tuesday night at the People’s Center to forge an alliance and discuss ways to improve their working conditions. They said they were inspired to come forward with their stories when they saw the persistence of the protestors, who picket and chant in front of the business every Friday at 5:30 p.m.

Their first step, the workers said, is to encourage more students to join the boycott of the popular 24-hour deli — a move they said would likely provoke a response from management.

“We want students to know this is happening. We want their support for the boycott,” one worker said. “I don’t want the store to close, I just want a stable job that I don’t have to be afraid of,” added another.

Employees said they have not been able to respond to students’ questions about the situation at work because they are monitored by their managers and surveillance cameras.

Unidad Latina en Acción activist Megan Fountain ’07 said that despite the management’s various threats on their jobs and housing, the workers are starting to organize and communicate in order to break the silence.

“We were persistent and visible out there on the street,” she said. “The workers saw they had [the] support of the community, and didn’t have to be so fearful.”

Workers’ anecdotes also revealed that wage theft is common practice among New Haven restaurants. Of all the employees interviewed, only one has ever been paid above the minimum wage in New Haven.