Alex Saeedy walked past 40 picketers protesting the alleged firing of four immigrant whistleblowers to buy a can of Diet Coke and a Reuben sandwich with lettuce, tomato, onion, and dijon mustard.
His purchase Wednesday at the 24-hour deli Gourmet Heaven totaled $8.65—5 cents less than the new hourly minimum wage for Connecticut; and $4.49 more than some workers claim they were paid hourly before cooperating with a state Department of Labor investigation into the company. The workers said they were paid between $4.16 and $6.25 for the past three to eight years.
That was the scene at the popular Broadway store at lunch hour Wednesday, as members of immigrant advocacy organization Unidad Latina en Accion made speeches, chanted slogans (“Stop intimidation, no retaliation”) and held signs reading “Take exploitation off the menu” outside the 24-hour deli.
Business at Gourmet Heaven dropped as a result, according to one employee. Some customers did wade through the protest—and offered explanations for their moral choice.
“I’m doing me. The Department of Labor will do them,” said Saeedy, a Yale undergraduate history major. “I think this is emblematic of this belief Yale students have that they can create a world free of problems and full of happiness and justice.”
He called it an example of students “stepping outside of their boundaries” in response to “a bureaucratic, external city labor dispute that will probably get fixed up soon.”
Another customer, a Yale undergraduate who asked not to be identified: “At this point in my life I’d rather get a quick healthy sandwich at a reasonable price than stand up for something that I’m not particularly invested in.
“I know it’s morally incorrect, but where else around here is it convenient to get a sandwich on the way to the gym?”
At one point, the fired workers, including Julio (pictured; he didn’t want to be identified by his last name), walked back inside Gourmet Heaven to ask for their jobs back. They were met with silence by employees. “Management is hiding,” said organizer John Jairo Lugo.
Gourmet Heaven is legally liable for only two years of back pay, so longer-term workers won’t be able to recover all they’re owed in the ongoing Labor Department proceeding, according to another protest organizer, Megan Fountain.
Following is an earlier version of this story:
After Gourmet Heaven agreed to pay back wages to employees, the company also allegedly sought revenge against staff “snitchers” who had talked to the state Department of Labor.
That’s according to Unidad Latina En Accion (ULA) and Yale activists who are planning a Wednesday protest outside the popular Broadway market, known as “G-Heav” among its Yale student clientele.
Activists say Gourmet Heaven fired four workers who told the Department of Labor that they’d been underpaid for years.
Store owner Chung Cho couldn’t be reached for comment.
Gary Pechie, head of the labor department’s Wage and Workplace Standards Division, said he hasn’t yet received a complaint about the alleged firings, but expects to see one. If the claims are true, the owner faces harsh penalties, possibly including criminal charges, he said.
The state Department of Labor investigated Gourmet Heaven last summer after a worker filed a in July, alleging that he was owed nearly $10,000 in unpaid wages. The Department of Labor found a number of violations at the market, including paying workers less than the minimum wage.
The investigation led to protests and calls for boycott, as activists took up the cause of the underpaid workers.
On Nov. 14, Gourmet Heaven settled with the Department of Labor, agreeing to a settlement of $140,000 to be disbursed to some two dozen Gourmet Heaven workers, plus a penalty of $10,200, Pechie said. Gourmet Heaven is on a payment plan, Pechie said. The first payment was made on Nov. 22, the second is “due right now,” and the last payment is due Feb. 21.
The $140,000 settlement covers “the majority” of unpaid back wages, Pechie said. It’s unclear exactly how much was owed because there is “a lack of records from both sides,” he said. “We’ve instructed employees to keep track of their hours.”
In November, according to ULA, four Gourmet Heaven workers met with the Department of Labor and testified that they had been paid less than the minimum wage for years.
“We have talked to workers that are still working there,” Pechie confirmed. “We are continuing to monitor the payroll practices at Gourmet Heaven. It’s an ongoing investigation. We are still getting information that perhaps there are some irregularities going on down there.”
“If they continue to flaunt the law then obviously there will be a steeper price,” Pechie said.
After the four workers spoke with the Department of Labor, according to ULA, “the manager began pulling aside the workers one by one, stating that the owner was aware of the meeting, and that ‘snitchers’ would be punished.”
After a week of unpaid vacation, the four workers returned to Gourmet Heaven on Jan. 3 and discovered they’d been fired.
“Misael, Isai, Cristian and Julio worked 7 am to 7 pm, 6 days per week, earning $4.16 to $6.25 per hour for three to eight years,” a press release for Wednesday’s rally stated in reference to the four fired workers. “While Yale students were away on Christmas break, the deli fired the four workers in retaliation for their Department of Labor complaint.”
“Any employer that would fire or retaliate against an employee ... is doing so at great risk,” said Pechie. “There is a retaliation law in the state of Connecticut.” He cited the statute—31-69b—and said “we have used it quite often.”
“It’s unfortunate that somehow the message isn’t getting to this employer,” Pechie said. Department of Labor enforcement includes efforts to educate offending employers, he said. “For some reason, it appears this employer hasn’t gotten it yet.”
“We went civil last time,” Pechie said. The Department of Labor can also file criminal charges, he said. “It’s a tool we have.”
posted by: Anderson Scooper on January 15, 2014 5:59pm
If Mr. Cho were smart he’d go ahead and sell the business to a new owner, who could rename it, hopefully keep the current workforce, and begin to move forward with a clean slate. (And no, I’m not suggesting a sale to a relative!)
Otherwise one must imagine these transgressions will prove to be the end for not just Gourmet Heaven, but also the jobs it provides to dedicated workers.
Also I wish this story skipped the few customers crossing the picket line, and instead focused on the very many of us who believe in fairness and workers’ rights.
Finally, it needs to be pointed out that there are many, many business owners in New Haven,—particularly in food service,—who are doing the exact same thing that Cho and Gourmet Heaven got caught for. Here’s hoping that New Haven’s labor movement will be less silent about these abuses going forward, even if the exploited are largely illegal immigrants.
posted by: Emily G on January 15, 2014 7:11pm
YES to the Fair Wage Business Report Card! This is a great idea and needs to happen in New Haven.
Businesses should be able to voluntarily submit their payroll and HR practices to an independent review group that can certify that they are abiding by applicable labor laws and treating their employees fairly. If the Department of Labor could be involved in some way, either to help develop the evaluation protocol or to certify that the business has no pending complaints or negative rulings, that would lend this rating even more significance.
Think of how powerful it would be to prominently display a ZAGAT-like sticker in the window of your shop or office that certifies your New Haven business as a fair, safe place to work! Now, think of how bad it would look to be the business next door without that same sticker. I know that making this kind of information readily available to the consumer would likely have a significant impact on where we spend our money and how business is conducted in this city. It would be great to see the Chamber of Commerce and Department of Economic Development get on board. What do you all say?
posted by: SamuelRoberts on January 16, 2014 12:37am
“I’m doing me. The Department of Labor will do them,” said Saeedy, a Yale undergraduate history major. “I think this is emblematic of this belief Yale students have that they can create a world free of problems and full of happiness and justice…a bureaucratic, external city labor dispute that will probably get fixed up soon.”
““I know it’s morally incorrect, but where else around here is it convenient to get a sandwich on the way to the gym?”
Alex Saeedy and unnamed Yale undergrad: Please please please buck the trend and never ever ever step foot near public office or be someone’s boss. clearly you care incredibly little about labor.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen more poignant examples of Yale UG’s exhibiting precisely the brutish ignorance and indifference you’d think they’d want to avoid perpetuating. Congrats! You’re still out of touch with everything!
posted by: HewNaven on January 19, 2014 2:47pm
First, Capitalism 101: there is no such thing as a ‘free market’. Every market on Earth is regulated by a local and federal legal system plus the rules of the various trade commissions, etc. As an example, our local market is regulated by labor laws, amongst many other restrictions. If a business refuses to follow these labor laws then the public may respond by choosing not to shop there, or by explicitly asking the community join a boycott of that business, until the owner decides to follow our common standards of business practice (i.e. market regulations). Perhaps you’re confusing ‘voting with your dollar’ to the concept of a ‘free market’ which doesn’t really exist. Many people make that mistake.
Your second comment is actually a good example to illustrate the fundamental differences between reactionary and progressive politics. The former aspires to an imagined past (e.g. “my grandparents did, why can’t you?”), the latter dreams of an imagined future (e.g. “let’s institute a mandatory livable wage”). Everyone has a preference toward one end of the spectrum. Most of us would rather be on the side of progress as evidenced by the trajectory of culture and politics.
My grandparents had to endure disease epidemics and bread lines, and dangerous working conditions in factories. They lived in cold-water flats in cramped apartment buildings which would be illegal by today’s standards. Should we de-regulate the labor and housing markets to be on par with the era our grandparents’ lived in? What would that prove?
Finally, if you go out of your way to talk to a reporter, as Saeedy did, then you’re responsible for your comments. If the community finds your words distasteful, that’s the risk you run for sharing your opinion with the media. Next time, Saeedy can say “no comment” if he wishes to avoid that discomfort.
posted by: CommonSense on January 19, 2014 11:13pm
Call me crazy, but googling the high school information of a 20 year old college student is creepy…plain and simple. If I were to Google one of the complainants against Gourmet Heaven and bring up a larceny in his past, you would (rightly) point out the irrelevance of that information. I am simply doing the same thing. You have to be consistent. I understand you think being a Republican when in high school automatically makes someone wrong. Many people make THAT mistake.
Further, I need no education in Capitalism, as I am fairly certain I am one of the few NHI commenters that understands it and doesn’t swiftly default to empty political rhetoric. New Haven is about as far from a free market as cities outside of North Korea come. The inclusion of labor laws and the heavy regulation make New Haven far from a free market. The Department of Labor has a job to do. If people choose not to shop there because they don’t like the product, disagree with the owner’s policies, etc. then so be it.
My point regarding my grandparents was to illustrate the natural progression of people/generations in this country. Don’t be surprised if you come to America and experience a struggle.