Two years after Gourmet Heaven employees filed wage theft complaints with the Connecticut Department of Labor, former owner Chung Cho has repaid the wages that he owed his employees. But for some workers, the litigation continues.
A 2013 CT DOL investigation of the two New Haven Gourmet Heaven locations, now known as Good Nature Market, found that Cho owed over $218,000 in unpaid wages to two dozen employees. In November 2014, a judge in New Haven declared that the court would clear Cho’s record of the wage theft charges if he paid his workers within the next two years. Three months later, all of Cho’s former employees received their final paychecks from him, said Attorney James Bhandary-Alexander, who represents Gourmet Heaven employees.
“As a result of the Department of Labor investigation and the criminal case, he paid back all of the money that the Department of Labor found he owed for one two-year period,” said Bhandary-Alexander.
Connecticut statutes only allow the DOL to recoup lost wages from the two years before a complaint. Bhandary-Alexander speculated that if the DOL could look back 10 years, they might have found over $1 million in lost wages.
Six former Gourmet Heaven employees who cooperated with the DOL and became the targets of retaliation from Cho as a result are still seeking compensation, Bhandary-Alexander said. Cho fired four of the six workers and his managers cut hours for another, said Unidad Latina en Accion leader John Lugo. Federal statutes, such as those enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, grant these workers additional compensation from Cho, said Bhandary-Alexander. A motion submitted to the court revealed that the six employees are asking for $125,000 total in their settlement proposal.
At a hearing planned for Oct. 2, a federal judge will determine whether she approves of the proposed settlement plan. If not, the judge will order Bhandary-Alexander to propose a new settlement. If a reasonable settlement cannot be reached, the judge will order the matter to trial.
“The federal lawsuit represents the last opportunity for the New Haven workers to recover lost wages,” Bhandary-Alexander said.
Although the employees may soon receive additional compensation, the litigation comes with unintended consequences, Lugo said. The six workers continuing litigation against Cho have all been turned away from employment opportunities once employers discovered that they had filed litigation against their ex-employer, Lugo said.
Lugo added that the six former Gourmet Heaven employees are currently employed, but not in permanent jobs.
One of the six workers participating in the lawsuit, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid present and future employers from discovering his participation, said he looks forward to settling and moving forward.
“I’m looking for better jobs and people who pay their workers well,” he said. “I do not want any more problems with the restaurant owners.”
Cho continues to face litigation from workers at his Gourmet Heaven locations in Providence, Rhode Island, located near Brown University. In June, employees from the Providence location claiming wage theft gathered in front of Cho’s Woodbridge, Connecticut home to protest.
The first Gourmet Heaven in New Haven opened in 2001 at 15 Broadway.