Months after promising to aid workers’ groups and the Connecticut Department of Labor in the fight against wage theft in New Haven, city officials have yet to advance a motion that would allow police to support worker’s demands for stolen wages.
In the wake of the high-profile Gourmet Heaven labor dispute and ensuing arrest of owner Chung Cho for theft of services, city officials and the New Haven Police Department announced that they would partner with La Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA), the organization that represented the former Gourmet Heaven workers, to reinforce existing state statutes about wage theft. The ensuing press conference was hailed by headlines as the beginning of the end of wage theft in New Haven, but efforts to initiate a change in enforcement have stalled on the city’s Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden’s desk.
In December of last year, ULA activists worked with the NHPD to draft a policy that police would send a letter to businesses guilty of wage theft emphasizing the state statutes criminalizing wage theft. NHPD also agreed to prioritize arrest warrants for uncooperative wage offenders identified by the Department of Labor, ULA organizer John Lugo said.
“If a business owner reports shoplifting, the police will come immediately, but if an employer steals thousands of dollars from a worker, it’s not even treated like a real crime,” Lugo said. “The point of the letter is to get the NHPD to take this seriously.”
After agreeing on the policy and announcing the partnership at a press conference in February, city officials told activists it would just have to run by the corporation counsel to be approved. After months of waiting, activists met with the mayor’s chief of staff Tomas Reyes in late August, who told them they would have a response within a week, said ULA organizer Megan Fountain. They have not yet heard back from Bolden or any city officials.
Bolden did not respond to multiple requests for comment. City officials have not been responsive, according to Evelyn Nuñez, moderator for student social justice group MEChA, which has been involved in the Gourmet Heaven dispute since last year.
“The city has been dragging its feet for months and it’s unacceptable at this point,” said ULA organizer Megan Fountain ’07.
Activists with the assistance of Yale Law School Worker and Immigrant Advocacy Clinic students crafted the policy based on a similar one in Houston, Texas, which Lugo said has been effective in reducing worker exploitation. The goal, he said, is to empower workers to report theft to police.
Current state wage and hour laws condemn wage theft as criminal offense said attorney James Bhandary-Alexander of the New Haven Legal Assistance Association. More often than not, the Department of Labor will instead negotiate a settlement between employers and workers to come into compliance with wage laws.
Bhandary-Alexander said that when the employer refuses to pay the settlement, as was the case with Cho, it is important that local police have a clear understanding of the criminal statutes about wage theft and know how to enforce them.
“The police department has a lot on its plate and a lot of competing priorities,” Bhandary-Alexander said. “So we need the community effort to raise police awareness of wage theft.”
Five workers represented by Bhandary-Alexander filed a federal civil suit on Sept. 15 against Cho under the Fair Labor Standards Act.