New Haven officials vow to take on wage theft by employers
Grassroots labor activists and workers who were victims of wage theft joined top police and government leaders from New Haven, Connecticut at a news conference on Wednesday to announce their shared commitment to stop employers from stealing the earnings of mostly low-wage workers. They highlighted a crime that’s under-reported across the country. Melinda Tuhus reports from New Haven.
Wage theft is the practice of paying workers less than the minimum wage and not paying overtime when required by law. Victims fighting back against wage theft have found new allies in police and city officials in New Haven, who announced they will pursue criminal charges against employers who continue to shortchange their workers.
One such employer, Chung Cho, was arrested this week and faces charges of first degree larceny for allegedly cheating two dozen workers out of about $200,000 over several years. When workers filed complaints with the state labor department, Cho agreed to a settlement of $140,000, but then reneged on that. So a Department of Labor investigator got the New Haven police to arrest him.
It was the first time local police have used the larceny charge against employers in cases such as this. Before now, they did not make prosecution of wage theft a priority.
Julio Oliver worked at Cho’s business, Gourmet Heaven, for seven years and filed one of the complaints, after which he was fired.
“I don’t wish for Gourmet Heaven to close down or for anything happen to my friends who work there,” said Oliver. “All I wish is better treatment for not just Gourmet Heaven workers but for all of the workers in New Haven.”
The labor rights group Unidad Latina en Acción – or Latinos United in Action – has supported workers all over the city trying to recover stolen wages. They led weekly picket lines outside Gourmet Heaven for six months. Member Luis Ramirez said his advice to workers is to always keep a record of the hours they work, in case they need to file a complaint. He has a different message for bosses. His message to employers: “Pay always a fair wage, because we work hard and we deserve a fair living with dignity.” Ramirez also asked local officials to do their part to help workers recover stolen wages.
Jorge Perez, president of the city’s Board of Alders, helped coordinate efforts of the state, the police and the workers and their supporters.
“I want every business in this city to succeed, to be profitable and to be able to grow,” said Jorge Perez, president of the city’s Board of Alders. “But I also want them to do it 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.” Perez has helped coordinate efforts of the state, the police, and the workers and their supporters.
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.
Undocumented workers are the most vulnerable to wage theft because they are least likely to report the crime. Police and Department of Labor representatives at the press conference made clear they would defend the rights of workers regardless of immigration status.