Three employees at the Gourmet Heaven location in Providence, Rhode Island filed federal lawsuits this past Wednesday against owner Chung Cho for allegations of wage theft.
In December last year, the Rhode Island Department of Labor launched investigations into the Providence store, but no workers had filed formal lawsuits. The cases filed against Cho this week include allegations of wage theft extending into the beginning of 2014, even after Cho was arrested for wage theft in his two New Haven stores. The new accusations will not have any implications in the current cases against Cho in New Haven, but lawyers, activists and city officials interviewed said the earlier accusations from the two locations in New Haven encouraged the workers in Rhode Island to file complaints.
“Gourmet Heaven employees went out and they took a stand,” said Ward 29 Alder Brian Wingate, a member of the Alders’ Community Development Committee. “When they got some press behind it, other people in the community learned more about the issue and cared more about how other employees were being mistreated.”
Neither Cho nor workers at the Providence location could be reached for comment.
After the New Haven workers filed complaints, James Bhandary-Alexander, a lawyer with New Haven Legal Assistance who represented Gourmet Heaven workers against Cho, said workers in the Rhode Island location attended a wage theft conference that reassured them of community support. He added that, after his client Adin Morales, a former Gourmet Heaven employee, filed the first complaint, the number of complaints brought against Cho mushroomed.
Although some of the wage theft allegations against Cho extend back over a decade and the Rhode Island ones back five years, workers began to bring formal accusations to the Department of Labor and file lawsuits in only the last two years. Bhandary-Alexander said the reason for these silences is that workers often do not know their rights and fear retaliation.
“A lot of the employers, possibly including [Cho], count on immigrant workers to feel that they have no rights and to feel as if the one sure way to get fired is to assert their rights, and actually … what some of my clients said in their lawsuits is that they got fired collaborating with the Department of Labor investigation,” Bhandary-Alexander said.
He added that Gourmet Heaven did not post the legally mandated posters that spell out the workers’ rights pertaining to wages and hours. Other complaints cited harassing and threatening behavior from Cho.
Labor rights groups in New Haven and Yale said that the Rhode Island violations are another example of weak laws and law enforcement meant to protect workers.
Ava Tomasulo y Garcia ’17, co-coordinator of social justice organization MEChA, added that her group believes that these accusations only make the University’s closure of Gourmet Heaven more necessary, so that University Properties sends a message to its businesses that it will not tolerate such violations. She said MEChA and Unidad Latina en Acción will reach out to UP today in hopes of codifying standards for UP businesses.
“Yale has indicated that they’re not going to renew the lease and that’s going to be a very difficult statement for them to backtrack on, and these new allegations in Rhode Island will make it even more difficult for them to backtrack on these statements,” Tomasulo y Garcia said.
The Rhode Island Gourmet Heaven is open 20 hours each day.