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Gourmet Heaven owner arrested

Cho, charged with worker discrimination and wage theft, could face fines and prison time if convicted

Gourmet Heaven owner Chung Cho was arrested Monday on five violations of discrimination against workers and five violations of failure to keep wage records, according to Connecticut state court records. The grocery store, which has locations in Providence and New Haven, Conn., opened a branch on Meeting Street last year.

This is the second time Cho has been arrested over the course of the past two weeks. Cho was arrested Feb. 20 by New Haven Police on 21 charges of felony wage theft and 20 misdemeanor counts of defrauding immigrant workers, according to information from the Connecticut state judicial site.

Cho also faces a charge of first-degree larceny for allegedly stealing over $10,000 in wages and withholding more than $218,000 in unpaid wages and more than $36,000 in statutory interest, the New Haven Register reported.

“I was on the phone with him the other day — he did not mention this,” Mohamed Masaud, manager of Gourmet Heaven on Weybosset Street in Providence, said Tuesday.  “He says everything is fine.”


The investigation

John Lugo, a member of Unidad Latina en Accion, said the New Haven-based organization, which advocates for immigrant rights, has been aware of the wage violations at the two Gourmet Heaven stores in New Haven for many years. The Connecticut Department of Labor became involved when a worker filed a formal complaint, he said.

The DOL began its investigation last August, Lugo said. Investigators found that employees were working overtime without proper compensation, and many were receiving their wages in cash at a rate below the minimum wage, said Gary Pechie, director of the Wage and Workplace Standards Division of the DOL.

Cho was paying employees as little as $4.44 an hour, the Yale Daily News reported.

Cho could not provide payroll or time records to investigators, Pechie added.

When DOL agents attempted to shut down the Gourmet Heaven store in New Haven, the store was empty, as Cho had told workers to go home before the agents arrived, said Megan Fountain, ULA organizer.

Cho settled a separate lawsuit with the DOL last November after he agreed to  pay  $140,000 in wages and $10,200 in civil penalties, the New Haven Register reported.

But employees continued to report mistreatment and wage theft after the settlement was finalized, and Cho failed to make the first and second payments in a timely manner, Pechie said. Cho made the last payment on time, but the warrant for his arrest had already been issued, he added.

Cho’s arraignment is set for March 4 and could result in a substantial fine and up to five years in prison or a plea bargain, Pechie said.


New Haven activism

ULA organizers have been boycotting Gourmet Heaven in New Haven for the past six months, Lugo said. They held rallies in front of the stores, passed out flyers and held community presentations,  he added.

Cho brought some Providence workers to New Haven so they could participate in a counterprotest, Lugo said. He forced workers to go outside and protest the ULA boycott, Lugo added.

The workers “called us later to say ‘I’m sorry, they are forcing me,’” Lugo said.

Masaud said he joined other Providence employees in the counterprotest.

“I have to protect my job and my boss. Everything (the ULA says) is wrong. We are happy here and have no problems,” Masaud said. “The (ULA) is lying ­— people don’t want to lose their jobs.”

Fountain said the protest has attracted the attention of Yale students, including those in Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan — a Chicano organization that promotes social justice and cultural awareness. MEChA was concerned because the Gourmet Heaven stores in Connecticut are on property leased by the university, Fountain said.

Bruce Alexander, vice president for New Haven and state affairs and campus development, met with MEChA to discuss the Gourmet Heaven situation, wrote Yale University Press Secretary Thomas Conroy in an email to The Herald.

“University Properties strongly condemns any behavior contrary to labor laws or involving mistreatment of employees,” but “Gourmet Heaven has a legal right to be in the space until its lease expires in about two years,” Conroy wrote.

Fountain said MEChA is trying to meet with Alexander again. She said she hopes student groups at Brown will get involved and support labor rights.

New Haven Police hosted a press conference Wednesday to publicly discuss the arrest, Lugo said, adding that the conference sent a clear message to other businesses in New Haven that wage theft will not be tolerated.


From Connecticut to College Hill

The Providence locations of Gourmet Heaven are not currently under investigation, said Nicole Armstrong, coordinator of employment programs at the R.I. Department of Labor and Training.

“We don’t have any reports of wage issues in either of the Providence stores,” said Armstrong.  The R.I. Department of Labor and Training cannot take action unless someone steps forward and files a complaint, she added.

ULA activists said they believe similar labor violations are occurring in the Providence locations. New Haven employees who know workers in the Providence stores or have moved from New Haven to work in the Providence stores have reported “similar conditions,” Lugo said.

ULA attempted to team up with organizations in Rhode Island, but the organizations contacted “really didn’t want to take action until the workers in Rhode Island filed a complaint,” Fountain said.

But it’s unlikely that a Providence employee will step up and file a complaint because workers are afraid of losing their jobs and are still being pressured by Cho and their managers to remain silent, Fountain added.

Fountain said workers told her they were instructed to lie to reporters and investigators about their wages and working conditions, adding that undocumented immigrants are more likely to comply because Cho probably threatens to report them.

No Gourmet Heaven employees approached by The Herald in Providence were willing to discuss Cho’s arrest, his case or their working conditions. And no Gourmet Heaven locations in New Haven or Providence are set to close, Pechie said.

The case is now “in the hands of the courts,” Pechie said.



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