As Gourmet Heaven Era Nears Its End, Owner’s Court Battles Push On

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The protests started toward the end of last summer, with the Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA) led moving picket lines marching a circular route on the sidewalk outside Gourmet Heaven on Broadway.

The bull horn rallying cries-such as “Mr. Cho, pay what you owe!”-became a familiar sound for any customer that stopped in the popular food store on Friday afternoons around 5 p.m. They continued into the freezing winter, with activists from ULA, an immigrant and labor rights advocacy group in New Haven, serving hot chocolate to anyone who would listen to the stories of 72 hour work weeks for as little as $5 an hour-the conditions that Gourmet Heaven workers under owner Chung Cho, have allegedly endured.

Then four Gourmet Heaven workers were fired-allegedly in retaliation for filing complaints with the Connecticut Department of Labor, which  has charged that Cho owes workers at both its Broadway and Whitney Avenue stores $218,000 in back wages and unpaid overtime from a two year period.

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It’s more than a year later, and members of ULA are standing outside Gourmet Heaven yet again. But this time there are no picket signs, and they won’t need a bull horn-they’ll have news cameras and microphones instead. Gourmet Heaven has gotten the word from its landlord: Yale University. Yale Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development Bruce Alexander, who has held meetings with ULA activists and Cho’s former workers, has decided to end Gourmet Heaven’s lease next summer.

“What is happening is a big victory,” says Adin Morales-who first filed the complaint with the Department of Labor last year-in a written statement from the former Gourmet Heaven employees. “It gives us hope that in the future, working conditions will be better.”

There won’t be a New Haven Gourmet Heaven much longer, but Morales and ULA see this as a start of a larger campaign to combat wage theft in businesses throughout the city-starting with those operating in Yale owned properties.

“There are business owners on Yale campus who still think they can get away with exploitation, and Yale should inspect restaurant by restaurant, and send a message to everyone in the campus that they will no longer give leases to people that exploit their employees,” Morales says through a translator. “The benefits is not for us, but we are speaking for all workers who will come in the future.”

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Behind the press conference inside Gourmet Heaven, a group of current employees have gathered to listen. They see themselves as a group of workers who will be going in the future-and the near future at that.

“Are you gonna give us a job if they close the store?” says Alejandro Cardenes, who works in Gourmet Heaven’s deli section. “You’re affecting 30 or more families. If the store closes…”

He pauses.

“I don’t know.”

And the wage theft allegations? They deny them.

Cardenes points to Victor Silva, a cook at the store.

“He’s been here five years-ask him if they pay him $5 an hour,” he says.

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Silva tells reporters that he’s been getting $12 an hour. Laura Cordus, a cashier, says that she started at $8.75 an hour, which increased by a dollar within a month after she was first hired. At one point another employee brought out a bunch of pay stubs and held them up in front of the news cameras.

“It’s [the wage theft allegations] not really true,” Cordus says. “We like our jobs. We need our jobs. If you close the store, how are we going to support our families?”

The Department of Labor seems to disagree with Gourmet Heaven’s remaining employees regarding the wage theft allegations. It settled with Cho for $140,000-a settlement for less than the $218,000 he allegedly owed-and fined him an additional $10,000. In February he was arrested for failing to make the first two payment installments-thirds of the $150,000-on time.

Now, with criminal charges of wage theft and larceny-a case brought by the Connecticut State’s Attorney-over his head, Cho continues to deny any wrongdoing.

ULA’s next stop is the New Haven city courthouse on Church Street, where Cho is expected to appear. If he does not plea and negotiate a settlement today, his case will go to trial.

It’s about 10:40 a.m. and James Alexander, the Connecticut Legal Aid attorney representing five of Gourmet Heaven’s former workers, pulls the group aside in the courthouse atrium. The word from New Haven Mike Dennison, the prosecutor in Cho’s case, is that the defendant has requested that the court push back his appearance due to the media presence. His petition has been denied, Alexander tells them-Cho will have to come to court today.

So the group waits. At 12 p.m. the court takes a 20-minute recess. Still no Cho. Finally, a few minutes before the afternoon session of proceedings begins, he arrives. Dressed in a suit, he sits in the second row of benches, waiting for his name to be called from the list of criminal cases being handled that day.

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For the amount of time the activists waited, his part is quick-less than five minutes. He will not plead guilty-the pretrial conference is set for September 22. Outside the courthouse, greeted by a news camera and an entourage of his current employees who came out to support him, Cho refused to comment.

He might have another case to fight soon-at the press conference, Alexander told reporters that he is looking to file a Federal civil suit against Cho.

“A lot of the state law violations are also federal violations,” Alexander said. “That is expected to happen soon, because the negotiations haven’t been productive.”

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Alexander and his clients want Cho to, in their words, “pay what he owes”, and the $218,000 in the Department of Labor’s audit doesn’t even scratch the surface, he says.

The statute of limitations on wage theft, which prohibits plaintiffs from claiming back pay allegedly owed prior to the most recent three years, has capped the workers at the $218,000, but Alexander estimates that the total amount owed to them can be close to $1 million, although he doesn’t expect to get that much.

“The store was open 24/7,” he said. “You had workers working 72 hours, and every hour over 40 had to be time and a half, so it just adds up.”

Morales and his fellow plaintiffs alleged that works were discouraged from complaining, and that the possibility of terminations-such as the ones they were dealt after they contacted the Department of Labor-prevented employees from speaking out. If that is determined to be the case, it can open a flood gate, Alexander said.

“The judge can say that the statute of limitations doesn’t apply at all-if that is the situation,” he said. “We’re still investigating that.”

And whatever comes from the lawsuit can potentially be twofold, Alexander said.

“Under Federal law, you have a right to double damages,” he said.

Not only that, Cho would have to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees if he loses the civil suit, as mandated by a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to Alexander.

“The employer has every incentive to just pay,” Alexander said. “There’s an opportunity for Mr. Cho to pay what he owes and he hasn’t taken the opportunity up to now.”

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