Gourmet Heaven Inc. must pay $176,664 in damages to six workers, federal Judge Vanessa Bryant ruled on Tuesday.
The lawsuit, which alleged that Gourmet Heaven Inc. and its owners Chung Cho and Yong Cho committed minimum wage and overtime violations, was filed in September 2014 by six immigrant workers, with support from the New Haven Legal Assistance Association. The suit comes after two 2013 investigations of the establishment, when the Connecticut Department of Labor found the business’ records to be “incomplete and out of compliance with state law standards” and determined Chung Cho owed the six employees a total of $87,832. Cho was also arrested by the New Haven Police Department and charged with criminal wage payment law violations, failure to maintain wage record, defrauding immigrant workers and first-degree larceny.
The workers then brought the 2014 case against Cho to the U.S. District Court in response to retaliation they faced directly from Cho for communicating with the DOL, according to a press release from worker’s rights group Unidad Latina en Acción.
“The main problem in [this] community is [business owners] feel they can still make profits on the back of the workers,” said ULA activist John Lugo at a press conference held outside Atticus Bookstore and Cafe on Thursday evening. “We are going to keep fighting for the rights of the workers to be treated as human beings.”
Lugo said the victory against Gourmet Heaven Inc. was a victory for the entire New Haven community, including Yale affiliates who have protested with ULA. According to the ULA press release, beginning in 2013 community activists from ULA and Yale students picketed weekly outside Gourmet Heaven Inc. to protest on behalf of the workers.
ULA organizer Megan Fountain ’07 said the decision was three years in the making and that it affirms the rights of workers to protest when treated unfairly. She added that the decision sets a precedent for any businesses who retaliate against workers in the future to be punished.
During the 2013 investigations, Cho told his employees he intended to pay them partly under the table and instructed them not to speak to the DOL, according to Bryant’s decision. Cho warned workers who lived in an apartment he owned that they would lose their jobs if they spoke to the DOL and that the government would find them at the apartment and deport them, advising the workers to “run out the back door” if investigators came on site.
James Bhandary-Alexander, NHLAA staff attorney, said he was proud not only of his organization’s own work but also of his clients, who took personal risks in bringing about the case.
One of the workers in question, Misael Morales, was present at Thursday’s press conference.
“I am grateful to say we have fought for a long time, and we have won this case,” Morales said through a translator “Let’s keep fighting.”
Sebi Medina-Tayac ’16, a former reporter for the News, called for the Yale community to increase its support of immigrants and workers. Those who patronize businesses that mistreat workers are complicit in their exploitation, he said.
The press conference took place outside Atticus as ULA has been protesting the restaurant for nearly a year for allegedly firing employee Basilio Santiago without proper compensation, according to Lugo. After taking turns speaking, ULA members began chanting slogans such as “better coffee down the street” and “no justice, no peace.”
About an hour into the press conference, a New Haven resident forcibly took the microphone away from a speaker and said the conference was disturbing people on the street.
NHPD officers also stopped by the event and said ULA needed a permit for their megaphone. However, Fountain informed the officers that ULA had spoken to Mayor Toni Harp and the New Haven Corporation Counsel about using a megaphone. The officers left.
Atticus owner Charlie Negaro asked attendees who were blocking an entrance of the restaurant with a banner to move. In a letter to the News, Negaro apologized for the disturbance to Atticus’ customers and the New Haven community and maintained that ULA’s accusations of unfair labor practices are unfounded.
“In November of 2015 we fired an employee for cause,” Negaro said. “It was a professional, multimonth, fair process. We do not share specific details about our employees, we respect their privacy.”
Good Nature Market replaced the two Gourmet Heaven locations on Broadway Avenue and Whitney Avenue in March 2015.