Student and community activists celebrated a victorious year of protesting labor violations at Gourmet Heaven Thursday morning in front of the store’s Broadway location, using the venue to discuss their vision for businesses on the Yale campus and beyond.
Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA), the activist group pushing to close the convenience store following revelations that its owner was underpaying workers, called the press conference following Yale University Properties’ announcement that Gourmet Heaven’s lease would be revoked in June 2015. The announcement came after meetings held this summer between UP Vice President Bruce Alexander, MEChA and ULA members, and former and current Gourmet Heaven workers. Alexander said last month that the storefront would be replaced with a similar deli or convenience store.
Adin Morales, who used to work at Gourmet Heaven and filed the original complaint to the Connecticut Department of Labor, delivered a statement on behalf of the former and current workers who participated in the protests. Two workers were supporting the boycott, the other employees were inside. Eight later came out to speak against them to the press.
“This is a big victory for us because it is a warning to all of those who do the same to their workers,” Morales said. “It gives us hope that, in the future, working conditions will be better.”
He added that Yale should have more oversight over how its tenants are treating their workers by inspecting workplaces and monitoring pay, which UP currently does not do.
In her speech, MEChA moderator Evelyn Nunez ’15 said that Yale should not hire businesses with a history of labor violations, and an appropriate replacement for Gourmet Heaven would be a worker-run cooperative.
Following the press conference, workers, activists and supporters headed to the Mayor’s office to demand that the city and police department follow through with their verbal commitment to enforcing wage theft laws. Though city leaders gathered at NHPD headquarters last spring to announce a crack down on wage theft in the city, they have yet to officially change enforcement policy and have been “unresponsive” thus far to further requests, said Megan Fountain, an ULA organizer.
In the wake of the GHeav scandal, various businesses downtown have faced wage theft charges from the Connecticut Department of Labor (DOL), including Chap’s Grille and J&B Deli. All have complied with DOL regulations and settled with workers.
Several businesses in close proximity to Yale’s campus have settled directly with workers after deliberations facilitated by ULA, which has confronted business owners using collective action to tackle wage theft directly.
“Since we started the [GHeav] campaign, other workers at other businesses have been coming out and denouncing their conditions,” said John Lugo, founder and organizer for ULA. “This is a warning to settle as soon as possible.”
After activists left the storefront, about eight current workers gathered outside Gourmet Heaven, telling media they were worried about Yale’s decision to close the store and that Cho had always paid them well and treated them fairly, producing pay stubs to prove it.
Several alleged that the activists and workers only went to the Department of Labor to make money off of Cho.
“I thought the Department of Labor was working with Mr. Cho,” added Laura Corpus, a cashier. “I don’t know why they want to close the store.”
Alejandro Cardenas, another current worker, lamented that the actions of a few workers would affect the lives of over 30 current employees.
Gourmet Heaven owner Chung Cho plead “not guilty” to over 40 charges, including 21 felonies, at the New Haven Superior Court on Thursday. Five workers represented by lawyer James Bhandary-Alexander, of the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, are also bringing forth a federal civil suit against Cho, as “there have been no productive negotiations for the wage violations so far.”
Cho was arrested and charged in April after failing to pay portions of his $150,000 settlement with the DOL on time. Now, he faces a steeper price of at least $218,000, which Bhandary-Alexander said is a very conservative estimate of what he owes workers.
The $218,000 penalty only covers two years of back pay, which is as far back as state labor laws can reach. Many workers were underpaid for as long as a decade, Bhandry-Alexander estimates. The sum also does not include workers at Gourmet Heaven’s two Providence, R.I. locations.
Under state law, employers must pay double damages for wage theft, as well as legal fees. If the workers win the federal suit, they may be able to demand triple back pay.
“There’s been many opportunities for Cho to pay what he owes and get out of some of the trouble he’s in,” Bhandary-Alexander said. “The state gives every incentive to simply pay up.”
Gourmet Heaven opened on Broadway in 2002.