One year after they were filed, new wage theft lawsuits are still ongoing against former Gourmet Heaven owner Chung Cho, who last June finished paying $218,000 in stolen wages to two dozen employees.
In fall 2015, a year after the initial suit was filed, six workers brought federal lawsuits against Cho alleging that he retaliated against them for reporting wage theft by cutting their work hours and firing some of them. However, the workers may not gain anything at all from the new lawsuit: Cho filed for bankruptcy last fall and, while Judge Anthony Avallone denied his pleas to have the case suspended, collecting the money from Cho may be a challenge even if the workers are not rewarded the full $600,000 they seek.
“We do know for sure an issue in this case is collecting the money that’s owed, whether the judge determines it to be $600,000 or $100,000,” said the workers’ attorney, James Bhandary-Alexander.
By the end of November, the judge will determine and release the case’s outcome, Bhandary-Alexander said.
The court ordered Cho to set aside $170,000 in case the plaintiffs are awarded some proportion of their claims, he said. But Cho has not set aside any of that money, claiming that he does not have it.
Cho’s bankruptcy attorney David Leff did not return requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.
After University Properties declined to renew his lease, Cho sold Gourmet Heaven, which has since reopened under new management as Good Nature Market. He earned roughly half a million dollars in profit each year from his 24/7 delis on Broadway and Whitney Avenues, according to the plaintiff’s April court filing. However, the plaintiffs do not know where Cho has put that money from the sale, Bhandary-Alexander said.
In many other wage theft cases, defendants have made foreign investments, transferred their assets to family members and filed for bankruptcy to avoid paying their workers’ stolen wages, said Megan Fountain ’07, an organizer at local activist group Unidad Latina en Accion.
There are few statistics in Connecticut regarding wage theft, Bhandary-Alexander said.
No matter the outcome of the case this November, more legal action will likely continue to recoup the workers’ claims. If the judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs, but Cho does not pay, they will ask the court to examine the Cho’s assets, Bhandary-Alexander said. If the judge denies the workers’ case this fall, the claim will proceed to a jury, he added.
For ULA, the ongoing litigation points to more systemic issues. Fountain said ULA wished that University Properties would have worked more closely with the group in finding a new tenant. Members were disappointed when they discovered that Yale had sold the store to Sun Yup Kim, the owner of Good Nature Market, roughly six months before UP publicly announced the decision, she said.
“We still don’t support Good Nature Market because it’s a place where an injustice occurred,” Fountain said. “And some of the workers are still waiting.”
The Connecticut Department of Labor should also do more to protect employees, Fountain added. She said restaurant owners continue to pay their workers wages below the legal minimum, and, in parts of the state without strong activism, wage theft is more prevalent. ULA members believe the state should impose a wage lien, a policy forcing employers to repay their workers before they can sell their assets.
Bhandary-Alexander echoed Fountain’s sentiments on the necessity of new legislation.
“We as a community need to improve the ability of people to assert their rights by making laws better, by providing community education, by putting people in the mindset to not tolerate underpaying employers,” he said. “There’s a role for everyone, from the city, state, federal government, community organizations and attorneys.”
In New Haven, students can help end wage theft by choosing to boycott restaurants facing such allegations , said ULA organizer John Lugo. Group members try to talk to students and educate them about worker experiences in the city, he said.
ULA’s next protest will be this Thursday at 1 p.m. outside Atticus Bookstore & Cafe, followed by a demonstration at Thai Taste. Both local businesses have also been accused of wage theft.