“We are workers, we are humans, we have rights.” The poster hanging on the wall of the New Haven People’s Center—depicting a protester’s open mouth, shouting these words in a dozen languages—seems appropriate for a Labor Day afternoon. But the story I’m about to hear at this Howe Street activism center tells a different tale.
Adin, who is in his early twenties, worked at Gourmet Heaven—the all-hours convenience stores that have become a campus fixture—for 11 months of 2012. Megan Fountain, TC ’07, an organizer with the New Haven Workers Association/Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA), translated his words from Spanish to me: Adin worked at the Broadway location 12 hours-a-day, 6 days-a-week, and earned only $360 a week. That works out to $5 an hour—far below the United States minimum wage of $7.25. In Connecticut, the minimum wage is higher—$8.25. He had no written contract, and often didn’t receive his pay—much less overtime. When the owners were not on site, they watched the workers by surveillance camera to ensure they never rested. Adin lived with five other workers in a 450-square foot basement room of a building owned by Chung Cho, the GHeav owner, divided only by curtains. The room was so cramped that they could barely forge a path to get to the bathroom. Adin paid $50 a month—”for electricity”—to Chung Cho, both his landlord and his boss.
Adin got a small raise—making his salary $400 a week—but that was little improvement. He threatened to quit, and Cho offered an additional $20 raise, which Adin refused. Cho told him, “If you want to work, you can work. If you want to leave, you can leave. No one here is irreplaceable.”
Fed up with the working conditions and poor wages, Adin quit in December 2012. He eventually became the complainant who prompted the Connecticut Department of Labor to investigate Gourmet Heaven this summer, prompting boycotts, rallies, and, many hope, a new conversation about working conditions in New Haven.
On Aug. 7, the Department of Labor issued Stop Work Orders to both the Whitney Ave. and Broadway locations of Gourmet Heaven, temporarily closing the convenience stores. Investigators found a host of labor violations.
“Almost every violation that was possible for us to fine, we found,” wrote Gary Pechie, director of the DoL’s Wage and Workplace Standards Division, in a press release. Among the problems: workers were being treated as independent contractors, rather than employees; payroll and time records were nonexistent; payments were being issued in cash. But, most problematically, their wages were abysmally low, and they were not being paid overtime.
Both stores were allowed to reopen after their attorney contacted the DoL, assuring them that the business was gathering the necessary paperwork to prove compliance. The Department of Labor is examining Gourmet Heaven’s last two years of records and will send Cho a bill for overdue wages, plus fines—just having a single worker off of the payroll for one week carries a fine of $300. Nancy Steffens, the DoL’s Communications Director, told the Herald that Pechie had a meeting planned for next week with Cho and his attorney to review records and documentation that the DoL had requested. The stores are open, but the investigation is ongoing.
Gourmet Heaven is in the spotlight, but it’s certainly not the only offender in the city. Wage theft is rampant, activists say, especially in service industries: food, hospitality, cleaning, construction. Workers who don’t speak English or who are undocumented immigrants are especially vulnerable.
Many are unaware of their rights, a problem that Fountain and others are working to fix. The DoL itself has done trainings at the New Haven People’s Center to educate workers. Some aren’t aware of the “Memorandum of Understanding” that exists between DoL and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This means that all workers can report violations without any fear of being turned in to ICE. (Thus, a Nov., 2012 ICE probe that resulted in a fine after three undocumented workers were discovered to be working at Gourmet Heaven was unrelated.)
Katherine Aragón, TD ’14, moderator of Yale Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), said that she has to “rack her brain” to even think of a restaurant that has fair wage practices; she names only Claire’s Corner Copia. And Fountain said she’s talked to workers who corroborate Aragón’s claim. One worker has been employed at five restaurants in New Haven, only one of which paid him minimum wage. Adin said that 90 per cent of the businesses in New Haven cheat workers. He said they’re run by “estafadores,” a word that Fountain translates as frauds, cheaters, and swindlers.
In recent years, there have been a number of high-profile wage theft cases in the New Haven area. Fountain introduced me to a man, Hector, who was part of a successful case against the Taft Hotel. A civil lawsuit against the hotel ended in a $50,000 settlement in 2011. She also mentioned a case on a farm in North Branford, the Riverside Dairy, where workers complained of living in a barn upstairs from the dairy’s cows; when a wall fell in, they were exposed to the elements. The owner refused to pay, which complicated matters; wage theft is also a criminal offense in Connecticut, so he spent a night in jail. A third case involves Goodfella’s Café in New Haven, proven to be a chronic violator of labor laws. Goodfella’s paid back wages and fees of over $40,000 in 2011. After NHWA filed a Freedom of Information Act request, they learned that Goodfella’s was a repeat offender. Fountain said that the owner told the organization that he would never pay minimum wage, “because ‘that’s the way business works in America and everyone gets away with it.’” “Businesses see fines as a slap on the wrist,” she said.
Business owners have two choices: to pay the fines and wages, or to contest them in court. The latter option places complainants in a difficult situation, according to Michael Wishnie, a professor at Yale Law School who specializes in worker and immigrant rights. Workers sometimes agree to accept “far less than they are owed, so as to have a settlement, than to have the time, uncertainty, and stress of litigation,” Wishnie said. Sometimes the DoL even encourages employees to take that option to avoid a difficult legal battle. There are few resources for pro bono legal work in New Haven, Fountain said. Yale Law School clinics and New Haven Legal Assistance can only take on a handful of cases.
Through its own investigations, Connecticut’s DoL recovered more than $6.5 million in unpaid wages in the last fiscal year, with nearly $900,000 going to workers who hadn’t been paid minimum wage or overtime and $1.9 million to workers who had not received the correct amount of pay at public contract construction sites. It’s a lot of money. But even when the money is paid in full, problems can still remain. After the bill is settled, the DoL closes the case. But follow-up investigations are not part of their work, unless another complaint is brought. Wishnie said the United States DoL is more likely to use a proactive process, initiating its own investigations, sometimes focusing on industries or regions—for instance, the Manhattan garment industry or the agricultural industry of central California. However, Connecticut typically follows a complaint-driven process, and the US DoL has yet to investigate New Haven.
It’s unclear why the State Department is less proactive, but Fountain suggests it may be an issue of resources. There are only six investigators for the state, she said, and efforts in Hartford to lobby for increased funding for more staff have been unsuccessful.
As activists continue to fight for fair wages, questions arise about the role of the legal system—especially as New Haven prepares to elect a new mayor. Some cities, such as Chicago, Ill., Austin, Texas, and Somerville, Mass., have passed their own living wage ordinances. New Haven’s city employees have had an ordinance since 1997, and won a wage increase in 2011—but it does not apply to other employers. Wishnie suggests that the New Haven Police Department could also play a key role, taking criminal complaints from workers and following up with investigation and contribution.
In Gourmet Heaven’s particular case, many have questioned Yale’s involvement. Gourmet Heaven’s landlord is University Properties (UP), which manages all of Yale’s commercial properties, including much of Broadway, Chapel, and Whitney Ave. UP could not be reached for comment, but its spokesperson, Tom Conroy, told the Yale Daily News that Gourmet Heaven’s management and the DoL were the only parties involved and that “Yale has no involvement” in the case. While the university’s workers are unionized, Gourmet Heaven’s, of course, are not.
“If we were [Adin's] situation, would we want to be treated in this manner?” asked Evelyn Nuñez, SY ’15, MEChA’s Community Action Chair. She pointed out that Adin is in his early twenties, close to most Yale students in age. “We’re all living here. We all walk down the same streets,” adds Christofer Rodelo, JE ’15, the group’s political action chair.
Activists agree that it will take broad community support to make New Haven a better place for workers. There are many ways to go about that, they say. Fountain’s organization will continue to educate workers and go public with their complaints. “We want employers… to think twice about stealing wages,” she declares. It is especially important that workers know about the ICE/DoL firewall, since “when people are afraid of being deported, they’re less likely to know about their rights at work.” She finds it promising that the DoL conducted this investigation so publicly. “Maybe it’s a strategy they’ll be using more in the future.”
Rodelo notes that student opinion is clearly “polarized” on the boycott, but said that students should be aware of how they are “complicit” in the problem, adding that it is a “matter of dignity for people who aren’t Yale students.” MEChA plans to boycott Gourmet Heaven and will continue to protest every Friday at 5:30 pm outside the Broadway location until the issue is resolved—“not just until the investigation is closed,” Nuñez added. They also plan to collect more information from workers at other establishments to help understand the scope of wage theft in New Haven. While Aragón calls for students to participate, particularly in terms of where they choose to shop, she cautions that the movement is, at its foundation, a movement for workers’ justice, and that students should act in solidarity.
While Gourmet Heaven is just minutes from most students’ residences, what happens there has an effect beyond the Yale community. Wishnie notes that, “it takes a lot of courage for workers to come forward. When they do, I think we have a responsibility to support them and not to tolerate the illegal activities that deprive workers, their children, and their households of the wages they have earned.”
There was a time,” Adin said, “that I didn’t know anything about my rights.” Now, with the help of ULA, he has taken a step to help ensure that other workers also get what they are entitled to, legally and ethically. “It seemed like the right thing to do,” he said. “I don’t want other people to suffer what I’ve suffered, to have their dreams crushed like mine were.”