Together, New Haven Activists and Leaders Strike Back Against Wage Theft

Melinda Tuhus

Julio Olivar is one of two dozen Gourmet Heaven workers who say they were cheated out of their wages by owner Chung Cho. (Melinda Tuhus)

Last Wednes­day in New Haven, Conn., labor activists and work­ers joined police and gov­ern­ment lead­ers at a news con­fer­ence announc­ing their shared com­mit­ment to stop­ping employ­ers from steal­ing the earn­ings of their most­ly low-wage workers.

Wage theft — pay­ing employ­ees less than the min­i­mum wage or not pay­ing over­time when required by law — is wide­spread through­out the coun­try. A recent report by the Nation­al Employ­ment Law Project found a quar­ter of low-wage work­ers inter­viewed in sev­er­al cities had been paid less than the min­i­mum wage in the pre­vi­ous week; three-quar­ters had worked more than 40 hours a week with­out being paid overtime. 

Too often, employ­ers found guilty of wage theft slip through the judi­cial sys­tem with lit­tle more than a slap on the wrist. But in New Haven, city offi­cials are tak­ing sig­nif­i­cant steps to pur­sue crim­i­nal charges against those who short­change their workers.

This week’s press con­fer­ence was prompt­ed by the recent arrest of Chung Cho, own­er of the region­al deli chain Gourmet Heav­en. Cho faces 21 felony charges of vio­lat­ing wage pay­ment require­ments, 20 mis­de­meanor charges of defraud­ing alien work­ers of wages, and one felony count of first-degree lar­ce­ny for alleged­ly cheat­ing more than two dozen work­ers out of about $200,000 over sev­er­al years. In July 2013, a Gourmet Heav­en employ­ee filed a com­plaint with the state labor depart­ment; after an inves­ti­ga­tion, Cho agreed in Novem­ber 2013 to a set­tle­ment of $140,000 total.

Three months lat­er, Cho still hadn’t paid up. In fact, work­ers claim he fired four employ­ees who spoke to a Depart­ment of Labor rep­re­sen­ta­tive, prompt­ing a sep­a­rate retal­i­a­tion inves­ti­ga­tion that is still under way. Final­ly, a labor depart­ment inves­ti­ga­tor got the state to issue an arrest war­rant, which the New Haven police served.

It was the first time local police have ever levied lar­ce­ny charges against employ­ers in cas­es such as this; labor advo­cates say author­i­ties had not made pros­e­cut­ing wage theft a pri­or­i­ty in the past.

Julio Oli­var, one of Cho’s employ­ees, worked at Gourmet Heav­en for sev­en years. Accord­ing to a state­ment he gave the state labor depart­ment, he and 20 oth­er work­ers were paid less than min­i­mum wage and denied over­time pay for 72-hour work weeks.

At the con­fer­ence, he said he hoped the case would inspire oth­er local employ­ers to treat their work­ers just­ly. I don’t wish for Gourmet Heav­en to close down or for any­thing [to] hap­pen to my friends who work there,” he said. All I wish is [for] bet­ter treat­ment — for not just Gourmet Heav­en work­ers, but for all of the work­ers in New Haven.”

Cho’s arrest came after months of pres­sure from labor advo­cates and grass­roots allies. Local activist group Unidad Lati­na en Acción (Lati­nos Unit­ed in Action) led week­ly pick­et lines out­side Gourmet Heav­en for six months after the wage theft came to light, along with stu­dents from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty and Yale Divin­i­ty School. Before they began pick­et­ing, Unidad Lati­na also tried to nego­ti­ate with Cho, to no avail.

After the con­fer­ence, Unidad mem­ber Megan Foun­tain said she hoped oth­er police depart­ments would use the lar­ce­ny statute to pros­e­cute employ­ers who alleged­ly steal from their work­ers. After all, she point­ed out, stand­ing up for work­ers doesn’t require lengthy bat­tles in state leg­is­la­tures. Some advo­cates think that you need to pass leg­is­la­tion in order to crim­i­nal­ize wage theft,” she said. In Con­necti­cut, we found out we don’t need to pass any leg­is­la­tion, because wage theft is already ille­gal.” Though oth­er cities have tried to pros­e­cute wage theft, Foun­tain said, offi­cials often need a push from a grass­roots move­ment to make it happen.

And although activists were cer­tain­ly encour­aged by Cho’s arrest, he’s not the only employ­er guilty of wage theft in the city. With that in mind, Unidad mem­ber Luis Ramirez encour­aged work­ers, busi­ness own­ers and local lead­ers to hold steady in the fight for fair work­er wages.

My mes­sage to work­ers is to always keep a record of the hours they work, in case they need to file a com­plaint against their boss,” he said. My mes­sage to the employ­ers: Pay always a fair wage, because we work hard and we deserve a fair liv­ing with dig­ni­ty. A mes­sage for our police depart­ment and local gov­ern­ment and state gov­ern­ment: Please help us out in order to recov­er the stolen wages for a fair liv­ing for us and our families.”

Sev­er­al local lead­ers and police offi­cials at the press con­fer­ence said they’d pre­fer employ­ers just do the right thing so they wouldn’t have to be crim­i­nal­ly pros­e­cut­ed. But they also empha­sized that when boss­es try to cheat their work­ers, law enforce­ment would bring down the hammer.

On a nation­al lev­el, undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers are the most vul­ner­a­ble to wage theft because they are least like­ly to report the crime. But police and Depart­ment of Labor rep­re­sen­ta­tives at the press con­fer­ence also made clear they would defend the rights of all work­ers, regard­less of their immi­gra­tion status.

Jorge Perez, pres­i­dent of the city’s Board of Alders, helped coor­di­nate the efforts of the state, the police and the work­ers and their sup­port­ers. At the press con­fer­ence, he said he had mixed feel­ings about Cho’s arrest. On the one hand, he admit­ted, I want every busi­ness in this city to suc­ceed, to be prof­itable and to be able to grow.”

At the same time, he main­tained, eco­nom­ic suc­cess shouldn’t hinge on work­er exploita­tion. He point­ed out, I also want [busi­ness­es] to [grow] in a way that does not take advan­tage of their employ­ees and is not done on the back of those peo­ple who do most of the work.”

This sto­ry has been adapt­ed from a piece that orig­i­nal­ly ran on Free Speech Radio News.

Melin­da Tuhus is an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist with 25 years of expe­ri­ence in print and radio, includ­ing In These Times, The New York Times, Free Speech Radio News and pub­lic radio stations.
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