New Haven business owners who steal wages from immigrant employees could soon find a police officer at their door.
Local activists are working with the Connecticut Department of Labor and the New Haven Police Department on a strategy to make sure that business owners know what the law says about withholding wages, illegal underpayment and nonpayment of wages.
That word emerged Thursday as immigrant-rights activists took a victory lap. They held a press event outside Gourmet Heaven on Broadway to celebrate the news that the deli’s landlord, Yale University Properties, has decided not to renew its lease next June in the wake of the owner’s arrest.
The activists said the next step in their campaign against abuse of immigrant workers involves crafting the new strategy with law enforcement.
Their proposal includes changes to police operating procedure when it comes to rogue business owners would put lawbreakers on notice that the law will be enforced.
Police said Thursday that they’re on board with the idea of issuing that notice and are awaiting a green light on specific language from the city’s corporation counsel.
A draft directive that outlines how the NHPD would handle wage theft complaints and cooperate with the state labor department—including promptly serving arrest warrants—is in the hands of the city. If approved it will become part of the police department’s standard operating procedure.
Part of the new operating procedure would provide a friendly “reminder,” on NHPD letterhead, that the police stands ready to enforce the law. The goal is for businesses facing complaints to work with negotiators and settle wage disputes without it becoming a criminal matter.
“We agree with the concept,” Assistant Police Chief Archie Generoso said. “We’re waiting on the approval” from the city’s attorney.
The proposed letter from a department detective to employers would begin:
“To Whom It May Concern
“The New Haven Police Department together with the Connecticut Department of Labor is committed to thoroughly investigating complaints that an employer has not adequately compensated an employee for services performed. Where warranted, criminal charges will be filed against an employer who does not reimburse an employee for services rendered ...”
The text of Connecticut General Statutes section 53a-119, which defines criminal “theft of services,” would follow, along with a reminder that state law “bar[s] retaliation against any employee who reports a wage-and-hour violation or cooperates in an investigation.”
Unidad Latina Accion, along with the Amistad Catholic Workers and the Yale student activists of MECha, have been pressing city authorities to crack down on employers who thumb their noses at the system.
The high-profile arrest and impending trial of Chung Cho, owner of 24-hour deli Gourmet Heaven, has been the poster example of what activists say can happen when no one is looking. Cho entered a plea of not guilty Thursday to more than 40 counts of minimum wage violation and larceny. A state Department of Labor audit determined that Cho’s employees are owed at least $218,000 in back wages; James Bhandary-Alexander, a staff attorney with New Haven Legal Assistance Association, said he is preparing a civil suit to recoup wages.
Former Gourmet Employee Adin Morales estimated that Cho withheld $12,000 in wages because of alleged underpayment. In addition to holding his former employer accountable, he said Yale University is complicit in that alleged theft because it leased space to Cho.
In August, University Properties announced its intention to terminate Gourmet Heaven’s two-year lease early. The deli will close its doors on June 30, 2015, giving current employees an opportunity to find other jobs. Activists marked the occasion of Cho’s day in court Thursday with a trip to City Hall where they called on Mayor Toni Harp to carry out the proposed changes of police operating procedure, which would include reassuring immigrants complaining of wage theft that the police and labor department do not enforce federal immigration law..
Evelyn Núñez, moderator of MEChA, a Yale student Latino activist organization, and Cathleen Caldron, community action chair for MEChA, said ending the lease early is a good first step, but the university could and should do more. So should students.
“What has happened at Gourmet Heaven is happening across the nation,” Núñez said. “The struggle here is part of a broader movement for workers rights.”
Megan Fountain of Unidad Latina en Accion said Yale could further ensure that employees’ wages are protected by setting stricter guidelines for its leasing contracts and subcontracts. With the stroke of a pen, Yale officials could dictate that anyone who wants to do business with the university must agree to pay minimum wage.