With the support of local immigrant rights group Unidad Latina en Accion, (ULA) the former Gourmet Haven employees held demonstrations outside the eatery-a Yale mainstay-for more than a year while current workers counter protested on behalf of owner Chung Cho and denied the allegations. But the former employees claimed to have been owed hundreds of thousands in back wages-debt they say accumulated over years of working for less than minimum wage-and the Connecticut Department of Labor, (DOL) agreed.
The DOL says that it was over $250,000. They went after Gourmet Heaven owner Chung Cho for $140,000 of it. He was arrested for failing to pay periodic installments of that settlement in a timely manner, faced criminal charges for wage theft and larceny, and in October successfully petitioned for accelerated rehabilitation to avoid jail time.
If New Haven Legal Aid Attorney James Alexander wins an ongoing federal suit, the Fair Labor Standards Act will award his plaintiffs double the damages they were determined to have been owed. But for now, anti-wage theft activists are focusing on state laws.
They want Connecticut statutes to provide a more reliable avenue to double damages for workers in wage theft cases, and they believe that a bill that will be debated in the coming legislative session can-if passed-accomplish that.
“It strengthens the remedy that you as a worker can get when you’re a victim of wage theft,” Alexander says. “If it’s $10, it’s $20. If it’s $100, it’s $200.”
He’s sitting at a table in the meeting room at the People’s Center on Howe Street. Activists from ULA and other immigrant advocacy groups, as well as legal personnel, are there with him to talk about that proposal, among others that they are hoping to see make it through the legislature.
“Here’s the nuance,” he tells them. “The law already looks like it says that.”
It’s a matter of language in the legislation, Alexander says.
“It changes the word ‘may’, to ‘shall’,” he says.
And shifts the burden of proof-instead of the plaintiff having to prove that the employer did not make a “good faith attempt” to follow wage laws, the defendant must establish that he took steps in an effort to adhere to labor regulations.
“It gives the judge discretion-it just gives changes how you give the judge discretion,” Alexander says. “The burden should be on the employer to approve that they’re not responsible for wage theft.”
The Connecticut Department of Labor’s Wage and Workplace Standards Division reported 116 wage violations between July 2012 and June 2013. The Division’s Wage and Hour unit found 107 businesses to have been guilty of violating minimum wage and overtime regulations.
During that same period, the Division’s Wage Enforcement Unit recovered unpaid wages for 1,442 employees.
Collectively, the units recovered more than $4 million for wage/overtime-related complaints during the 2012-2013 Fiscal Year.
Nadine Nevins is the Managing Attorney of the Stamford Day Laborers’ Clinic, which assists workers on wage theft claims. When it comes to collecting damages, evidence of guilt on the part of the employer does not always guarantee that the plaintiff will get paid what they are owned, she says.
“You’d think that would be the end of it,” Nevins says. “But no, the employer doesn’t [always] pay. Employers have many ways to avoid paying.”
They can file for bankruptcy, or change the name of their business, but workers have different ways to attempt to collect, she says.
They can petition for a financial institution execution, a process by which the payment owed is removed from the employer’s bank account, but workers’ ability to go this route is limited by how much information they have, Nevins says.
“Many times they’re not paid by check,” she says. “They don’t know where the employer banks. They don’t generally have representation. The tools we have don’t work for low-income people.”
So immigrant labor advocates want the state to provide more.
Another bill sitting in the state legislature aims to impose liens on the properties of employers who fail to pay workers what they are owed.
“This is something that exists for contractors,” Alexander says. “If you hire a contractor and they do finish the work, and then you decide, ‘I don’t have enough money to pay’, they file a mechanic’s lien the next day and put a lien on your house. It’s the same concept.”
The U.S. Department of Labor has recovered $280 million in back wages on behalf of plaintiffs, according to an Economic Policy Institute report. At the state level, DOLs in 44 states have won back $172 million in back pay. Through class action lawsuits, private attorneys have collected $467 million on behalf of their clients, the report said.
Activists will be going to Hartford to give testimony on the proposed legislation this coming Thursday. The hearings begin at 2:30 p.m.