Khuan-Yu Hall, Contributing Photographer

Civil and labor rights groups in New Haven are protesting alleged police retaliation in the face of a case of wage theft.

John Lugo, organizing director for the advocacy group Unidad Latina en Accion, was arrested by New Haven police on Aug. 30 for disorderly conduct while protesting alleged wage theft. ULA contends that NHPD behavior constituted a case of assault, and have protested both the original wage theft case as well as Lugo’s arrest. 

Lugo and his attorney contested the charges against him at the New Haven Superior Court on Sept. 23, drawing the attention of ULA and several other advocacy groups, who rallied at the courthouse in solidarity. Lugo told the News that his court date has been pushed to later this month, but did not specify the exact date.  

Lugo and other ULA members had staged multiple protests over the summer in front of the shuttered Howe Street storefront of Miya’s Sushi. They were protesting on behalf of Luis Tlalmis, a former chef at the restaurant who claimed that Bun Lai, the owner of Miya’s, owed him $21,026 in unpaid wages and overtime pay. Tlalmis later filed a legal complaint against Lai with the Connecticut Department of Labor.  

Lugo told the News that police arrived at ULA’s offices on Aug. 30 and claimed to have an arrest warrant for alleged disorderly conduct and criminal mischief, although they did not produce the warrant’s paperwork. The News was unable to confirm if Lugo’s request was connected to the protests at Miya’s.

“I said, no, you are not going to arrest me.” Lugo said. “That’s when they jump on me, and they threw me on the floor.” 

ULA member Briam Timéo, who was present during Lugo’s arrest, also claimed that Lugo asked for an ambulance repeatedly. Police called an ambulance only after “teasing” Lugo, he added.  

In a statement to the News, NHPD assistant chief David Zanelli wrote that Lugo had resisted arrest when officers tried to take him into custody. Zanelli told the News that he was not aware of Lugo making any allegations of being “assaulted” by officers, but was unaware if there was an active investigation being conducted into the arrest by the NHPD’s Internal Affairs Division. Zanelli declined to comment further.

ULA members say that the police department’s behavior has soured the group’s relationship with the city. 

“They have criminalized our organization when we have been working so hard for the past 20 years to protect the working class and immigrant populations of this city,” said Lupita Tinoco SPH ’23, an intern at ULA. “Mayor Justin Elicker, it is time for you to make laws and actually enforce them in this city to protect against wage theft. It is time for our Department of Police to do their job and arrest the person who actually did the crime.”

Speakers at the Sept. 23 protest discussed the prevalence of labor law violations in Connecticut, particularly wage theft, claiming that such abuses of the law were possible because of protections offered to businesses by politicians. Several suggested that the problem is particularly severe in New Haven. 

“I am very proud to be standing here with you today, in solidarity with the workers of New Haven,” said Mark Colville of the Amistad Catholic Worker. “We will fight for the rights of the workers at Miya’s and the rights of John Lugo, who is being persecuted because he is pointing out, as ULA has pointed out for the past 25 to 30 years, the conspiracy between the police and the business owners in this city to deny fair wages to workers.

The Green Party of Connecticut also issued a statement that was read at the protest. The group condemned rampant wage theft across the United States, alleging that it takes about $50 billion out of the pockets of the nation’s workers every year.

“If an employee stole money from their boss’ cash register, the boss would call the police and have them arrested,” the statement read. “But when employers steal from their workers, the police not only refuse to help the workers, they take the boss’ side.” 

Responding to concerns about wage theft in the city, Mayor Justin Elicker said that the NHPD does not frequently receive complaints about wage theft. However, Elicker said that he looks forward to working more with Lugo and ULA to strengthen the power of workers, building on conversations they had earlier in the year.

“I have met with John Lugo and an attorney [from ULA] to talk about how we can strengthen the work we do to ensure accountability when wage theft exists,” Elicker said. “We — very proactively — engaged with ULA when they reached out to talk about wage theft and strengthen assurances that this does not occur.”

Unidad Latina en Accion’s office is located at 37 Howe Street. 

Sophie Sonnenfeld of the News contributed reporting.

Khuan-Yu Hall is the City Editor at the News. He is a sophomore in Davenport, from Hartland, Vermont, double majoring in Statistics and Data Science and Ethics, Politics, and Economics.