After accusations of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages from his employees and failing to cooperate fully with a Department of Labor investigation, Gourmet Heaven owner Chung Cho will not see the inside of a prison cell.
Last week, Superior Court Judge Maureen Keegan approved Cho’s request for accelerated rehabilitation, a program that will ensure there is no crime on Cho’s record, but that will bind him to two years of probation. Cho was arrested last February on 42 felony and misdemeanor charges of wage theft, crimes for which he could have faced up to 145 years of jail time.
While the decision was a clear victory for Cho, some questioned where it left Gourmet Heaven workers who experienced wage theft.
“We think the prosecutors did a fantastic job, but the judge made a mistake in granting accelerated rehabilitation,” said James Bhandary-Alexander, the attorney representing six current and past Gourmet Heaven workers who experienced wage theft. “But presumably this creates a very strong incentive for Cho to comply with Connecticut labor and employment laws.”
The judge ruled that Cho must fulfill four additional requirements in order to keep his probationary status. First, over the next 23 months, he must pay an additional $120,000 to the 20 workers from whom he stole wages, as well as a deposit of $5,000 to the Connecticut Victims Compensation fund, which helps crime victims pay for expenses incurred due to the violation. He must also write letters of apology to the six workers who testified against him last month. Lastly, he must continue to abide by Connecticut labor and compliance laws over the next two years.
If Cho violates labor laws or is again uncooperative with the DOL,the prosecution will resume, and he will face a trial by jury.
The $120,000 he must now pay is added to the roughly $140,000 that he was originally ordered to pay to workers, according to Megan Fountain ’07, an organizer for Unidad Latina en Acción, a local social justice organization. Yet according to Fountain, the original amount that the Department of Labor found that Cho had stolen from his workers was upwards of $250,000.
“The owner of Gourmet Heaven caused considerable harm to the workers,” said Fountain. “They were working in sweatshop conditions.”
Although the criminal case against Cho is complete, the six workers who Bhandary-Alexander represents have filed a case against Cho in civil court. Cho now has the option to either file a response or settle the case out of court.
One of these workers is Alejandro Rodriguez, a Mexican immigrant who worked at Gourmet Heaven for 12 years as a cleaner, who also testified against Cho during the hearing for accelerated rehabilitation. Rodriguez said that he was paid $40 for every 12-hour shift he worked. Rodriguez added that after he chose to cooperate with the DOL investigation, Cho retaliated by limiting him to working only 40 hours in the 24-hour deli each week and forcing him to work the night shift. It is because of these retaliations that Rodriguez has decided to return to Mexico.
“I think that the judge is not being impartial,” Rodriguez said. “The judge is leaning towards his favor. Because at the end of the day, he is going to walk out as if he did nothing.”
Bhandary-Alexander called the results of the decision a mixed bag.
Evelyn Nunez ’15, President of MEChA de Yale, a campus social justice group, said that she worries about the precedent that the decision sets for wage theft in New Haven.
“I think that dismissing the criminal charges is not justice,” Fountain said. “But the fact that the labor department, the police department, and the community are paying attention to this issue is real justice, and perhaps that is even more important than Mr. Cho having a criminal record.”
Correction: Dec. 2
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that if Cho were to again violate labor laws or not cooperate with the DOL, he would face time in jail without a trial. In fact, the prosecution would resume, and he would face a trial by jury.