They did day-long shifts-standing-throughout a work week that could total anywhere between 72-82 hours a week.
“We had to be on our feet for 12 hours-even if there was no work to do,” says Adin Morales, a former worker at the Gourmet Heaven on Broadway in New Haven. “We couldn’t sit or lean on anything.”
The $5 an hour-well below Connecticut’s legal minimum wage, which rose from $8.25 to $8.70 with the new year-Morales was paid translated to $360 per week. When he asked for a raise, Chung Cho, the owner of Gourmet Heaven-the franchise that came under fire for alleged wage theft last year and is still under Department of Labor investigation for accusations of failing to pay overtime-offered him an additional $20 a week.
Morales says that when he threatened to walk, Cho held the door open for him.
“He said ‘if you want to leave, you can leave. There are more people that will replace you,’” Morales says. “I decided I couldn’t put up with it anymore. I was sick of it.”
That was back in 2012. A year later, the hours and working conditions he and his co-workers dealt with still haunted him.
“We shouldn’t have to work so many hours,” Morales says. “We’re human beings, and we have rights.”
Today, following the campaign he launched with the help of the New Haven-based Unidad Latina en Accion, (ULA) Gourmet Heaven workers are getting some of the minimum wage back pay, courtesy of a Department of Labor settlement for $140,000. Christian Ramires and Julio, two of his former co-workers that were fired by Gourmet Heaven-allegedly in retaliation for bringing the Department of Labor investigation-have found new employment for better hours at higher wages. But for all three, the nagging desire-to change the work environment they left behind-that first prompted Morales to tell his story to ULA is keeping them in the fight as the Department of Labor investigates claims that Gourmet Heaven has failed to properly pay overtime wages, and that it unlawfully terminated the former employees for speaking out.
“We were fired simply because we had been part of the complaints,” Ramires says. “They didn’t give us any other reason. It was for fighting for our rights.”
Morales, Ramires, and Julio are sitting with members of ULA before a congregation of Yale University students inside Dwight Hall on High Street. As a 24-hour shop, Gourmet Heaven has been a mainstay for the students that frequent it, and much of the campaign-which has manifested itself in weekly picket lines during rush hour-has centered on garnering the support of the Yale community.
“It’s important to keep up the pressure on Gourmet Heaven for those that are still there, because they could get fired for speaking out,” Julio tells the crowd of what looks like around 30 students.
The workers and members of ULA figure that the remaining employees are aware of that, considering some friction that was caused when Morales first brought his complaint to the Department of Labor.
“There are some convinced that this is the right thing, and there are others who are still against us,” Morales said.
When the former employees took to the streets for the picket two Fridays ago, they had a surprise waiting for them-Cho had organized a counter protest consisting of about 20 of his remaining workers.
“Some I still consider my friends, even if the boss has convinced them to turn their backs on me,” Julio said.
Morales cannot even say that he blames them.
“I think they’re forced because they’re afraid,” he said. “I don’t know if I was in the same position, if I’d do the protest too. They’re afraid to lose their job and the have family to support in Mexico. It’s a tough season to find work. It’s almost as if they have a gun to their heads. I don’t know what I would do.”
For now, ULA is changing its tactic. Last Friday, instead of its usual 5 p.m. picket, the group decided to demonstrate at 10 p.m. that same night in order to avoid making the issue into one that pits workers against one another.
“We don’t want to confront the counter protests,” Julio said. “That’s not our goal.”
The goal-or at least one of them-is to get the rest of what the workers are owned in back wages. The statute of limitations only allowed the employees to recover up to two years-worth of minimum wage back pay, and the Department of Labor originally went after Gourmet Heaven for $200,000-a figure that was knocked back to the $140,000 that was paid in the final settlement.
“Really our target is the government,” said Megan Fountain, an organizer with ULA. “The government needs to do its job and get the people their wages. The other thing is the precedent it sets. What message is that going to send to other employers?”