Chung Cho, owner of the Gourmet Heaven grocery chain with locations in Providence and New Haven, must respond by March 12 to a summons, or he will lose a federal wage theft suit.
Three former Gourmet Heaven employees from the Providence locations at Meeting Street and Weybosset Street filed the suit Feb. 18. They and five others, who subsequently joined the case, demand a total of $140,000 in compensation for unpaid wages.
The suit is being pursued in federal court due to legal overlap between state and federal law, said Peter Skwirz, the plaintiffs’ local counsel. The plaintiffs allege that Cho violated both the Rhode Island Minimum Wage Act by paying low wages and the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act by denying overtime wages.
The Meeting Street store on College Hill closed its doors Dec. 4, while the Weybosset Street store downtown remains open. The Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training opened an investigation in response to the same allegations last December after the store closed, the Providence Journal reported Dec. 19.
Cho faced charges for wage theft at the store’s two New Haven locations as a result of a Connecticut Department of Labor investigation. He was placed on a two-year probation and ordered to pay $140,000 to the Connecticut employees, said John Lugo, an organizer for Unidad Latina en Accion, the New Haven-based workers’ rights organization that was involved in the actions against the Connecticut stores. A similar civil suit to the one in Rhode Island is underway there, Lugo added.
The two New Haven stores are slated to close June 30, the Yale Daily News reported.
In the wake of the New Haven controversy, employees at the Providence locations contacted Lugo, he said.
The employees claim to have received between $350 and $400 for working as many as 72 hours per week — a rate that falls short of Rhode Island’s $9-per-hour minimum wage by as much as $4 per hour.
Lugo said he initially dealt with about 10 Rhode Island-based workers, though the suit was filed by only three. One of the reasons for investigating the Rhode Island locations was that they opened after Cho stole “millions of dollars” of wages from workers in New Haven, Lugo said.
The district court issued Cho a summons Feb. 19, and he was allotted three weeks to respond. Cho had not responded to the summons as of press time, and neither he nor his lawyers could be reached for comment.
The Rhode Island campaign is now being spearheaded by Fuerza Laboral and Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, though Fuerza Laboral did not initially accept the case because the workers did not contact the organization directly, Lugo said.
Phoebe Gardener, a community organizer for Fuerza Laboral, said the organization, along with Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, connected the employees with legal counsel for the case. Fuerza Laboral also organized two separate public protests at the DownCity location, which involved picketing outside and protestors entering the store to publicly demand that stolen wages be awarded.
The first protest occurred in December and the most recent one was on Feb. 18, the day the complaint was filed, Gardener said. They drew around 60 and 30 attendees, respectively, she added.
A previous version of this article misstated that Chung Cho must respond to a summons by March 5 or he will lose a federal wage theft suit. In fact, he must respond by March 12. The Herald regrets the error.