University News

Gourmet Heaven to close both New Haven locations

Pre-trial meeting will determine trial date for Chung Cho, chain owner accused of wage theft

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2014

Gourmet Heaven will close both its New Haven, Connecticut, locations next summer after the chain’s owner was arrested in February for alleged wage theft, Yale announced last month.

Despite the unrest in New Haven, as if March, no employees at either of the two Providence locations on Meeting Street and Weybosset Street had filed complaints, a Providence official told The Herald.

The lease for Gourmet Heaven’s Broadway Avenue location in New Haven was set to expire in two years, but the grocery store and Yale’s University Properties agreed to an earlier termination, wrote Lauren Zucker, Yale’s associate vice president and director of New Haven affairs and University Properties, in an email to The Herald.

Yale chose to announce the agreement early to give current employees time to adjust, Zucker wrote.

The decision to terminate Gourmet Heaven’s lease comes on the heels of the Connecticut Department of Labor’s months-long investigation of owner Chung Cho for alleged widespread wage theft.

After failing to comply with the DOL’s settlement agreements, Cho was arrested in February on 21 felony charges of violating wage payments greater than $2,000, 20 misdemeanor charges of defrauding alien workers of wages and one felony charge of first-degree larceny, according to case records updated Sunday.

Cho pled not guilty to all charges in court Thursday morning.

The DOL discovered that Cho paid his employees cash wages as low as $4.44 per hour with no overtime pay, the Yale Daily News reported in February. The Connecticut minimum wage is $8.70 per hour.

Community action

Unidad Latina en Accion, a grassroots social justice organization, and MEChA de Yale, a student group focused on issues affecting the local Latino community, have boycotted the grocery and picketed outside since August 2013, when the DOL investigation began.

Though Evelyn Nunez, MEChA’s moderator and leader of the student protests, and other MEChA members had long known of Cho’s mistreatment of workers, she said it was important for an employee to come forward and provide insight into working conditions before they launched a campaign.

That year, an employee named Adin quit his job at Gourmet Heaven after 11 months and sought action with ULA, said Megan Fountain, a ULA organizer and Yale alum. Fountain declined to provide Adin’s last name, though the New Haven Register quoted Adin Morales as a former employee in an article Thursday.

When Cho failed to speak with ULA or respond to members’ letters, Adin filed an official complaint with the DOL, Fountain said. The department issued a stop work order for 24 hours in early August 2013 and opened an investigation.

But it was not until this summer, when Yale officials met with a group of former and current employees, that the workers and supporting organizations were able to press University Properties to end the lease, Nunez said.

Retaliation and counter-protests

Cho staged counter-protests throughout the investigation in conjunction with friends and workers from the Providence locations, Nunez said.

Many of the employees protesting against ULA and outspoken workers said they joined for fear of losing their jobs or receiving reduced hours, Fountain said.

Cho also retaliated against several workers collaborating with the investigation, Fountain said. During talks with ULA in fall 2013, employees who became loyal to Cho disclosed the names of four employees working with the DOL, she said. Those workers were then fired over Christmas break, she added.

At the time, the fired workers were living in a one-room basement apartment rented by Cho, said James Bhandary-Alexander, the lawyer representing five of the workers who are victims of alleged wage theft in the criminal case.

“Another worker, more recently in July, had his hours reduced after his manager made it known that he was unhappy with the workers’ cooperation,” Bhandary-Alexander added.

All quiet in Providence

The employees from the two Providence Gourmet Heaven locations — including one just off campus — have not raised complaints about wages or working conditions.

No Providence employee at either location has filed a complaint as of March, wrote Mike Healey, chief public affairs officer for the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, in an email to The Herald. Healey added that he could not confirm whether any complaints have been received since then.

On March 11, per the DLT’s request, a manager of a Gourmet Heaven Providence location delivered two boxes of wage document records, one for each of Providence’s stores, to the Labor Standards Unit, Healey wrote.

The DLT then conducted an audit of the businesses from Jan. 1, 2013 to March 2, 2014, and in April sent the audit and supporting documents to the U.S. Department of Labor’s field office in Connecticut, Healey added.

Asked about the protests and outcomes in New Haven, an employee at the College Hill location — who declined to provide her name — said she did not have any information about the situation.

When asked how many hours she worked, the employee said, “We don’t have any problems here. That’s why we’re here. … There was already an inspection.”

Moving forward

Bhandary-Alexander wrote in an email to The Herald that the parties in the case will convene Sept. 22 for a pre-trial meeting, when they will set a trial date.

As the prosecutor and Cho work toward a plea agreement, Bhandary-Alexander said he will ensure that the prosecutor and judge understand the workers’ opinions.

“The workers don’t really have much of a voice in the criminal proceedings. Their role is they’re victims of the crime,” Fountain said.

Bhandary-Alexander said the former employees also have the option to bring a civil lawsuit against Cho if not all the money is paid back in the criminal case.

“In addition to the criminal case, in addition to the student activity moving forward, in addition to whatever the ULA does moving forward, I will shortly be filing a civil lawsuit in federal court,” Bhandary-Alexander said.

ULA has also been meeting with the New Haven police department to make sure wage theft is treated as a high priority, Fountain said.

As for Gourmet Heaven’s closing, Fountain said Yale made the right decision and that it sends a message to other tenants on properties owned by Yale.

But Fountain said Yale could do more by entering into a partnership with the Connecticut DOL and inspecting all the businesses on campus to ensure no one is working under sweatshop conditions.

Bhandary-Alexander characterized the community involvement as “wall-to-wall support” of the workers. “I would anticipate the reaction in Providence to be very similar.”

  • Jon

    Way to go! Yet another social justice organization leaving things half done. Not only that they make workers lose their jobs without providing them with any support, but they also openly admit that those people will not have any saying in court. This is typical of pampered upper class students who will sacrifice people whose situation they don’t understand in order to advance their war on principles. You need to get your hands dirty in order to fix social issues. Attempting such things irresponsibly will only produce more damage.