The Willows Inn, a nationally acclaimed restaurant on Lummi Island, has agreed to pay more than $1.37 million to settle a class-action lawsuit over accusations of wage theft involving 137 employees.
This settlement comes a year after the restaurant, owned by two-time James Beard award-winning chef Blaine Wetzel and his business partner Tim McEvoy, paid $600,000 to settle a similar wage theft lawsuit, in which employees claimed they weren’t provided adequate rest breaks and were not paid for all hours worked.
Filed in Whatcom County Superior Court on March 10, the most recent suit is considered an amendment to the earlier class-action lawsuit, filed in July 2017.
The earlier suit was settled last year and encompassed nonsupervisory employees who had worked at the restaurant from July 2014 to December 2017.
However, when checks began going out to the claimants, the attorney for the plaintiffs, Greg Wolk, said he started hearing from multiple employees who had worked at the Willows Inn from June 2018 to February 2022 and who alleged that they, too, had not been paid for all hours worked, had not been granted adequate meal and rest breaks and were not paid automatic service charges that were due to them.
Wetzel and his attorney did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The Willows Inn is the latest in a string of Washington or Seattle-area restaurants that have settled significant wage theft cases since Seattle made it illegal in 2011. The list includes Tom Douglas Restaurants, the Queen Anne location of the national chain Melting Pot, Pagliacci Pizza and Lowell’s in Pike Place Market. Wage theft has long been a problem in the restaurant industry — in 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor found that 84% of more than 9,000 restaurants investigated had violated wage laws.
In an interview, Julia Olmos, a cook at Willows Inn from June 2018 to December 2019, said she was often expected to work outside of paid hours. She said she was frequently asked to run errands for the restaurant before her shift and was not paid for the time it took to complete those tasks, nor reimbursed for the money she spent to purchase the items she was asked to obtain.
Olmos, who now works in the food industry in New York City, says that since she left The Willows Inn she has never again been asked to work off the clock. At the time however, it didn’t feel wrong to forage or grab ingredients from the grocery store before clocking in. Instead, that was the accepted culture of the restaurant where the kitchen staff “went into it being like, ‘foraging is a part of our job,’ ” she said.
But in hindsight, “It definitely was not cool for being out for 18 hours to forage ingredients for the restaurant that they could’ve paid foragers to get for them,” Olmos said.
The Willows Inn has come under fire for a number of issues in recent years, and has been accused of wage theft in several instances.
The posh 30-seat restaurant and adjoining hotel has cultivated a strong reputation under Wetzel and the restaurant has been highly regarded internationally for its unique menu that, Wetzel has claimed, relied exclusively on ingredients found or grown on the island.
However, in April 2021, The New York Times reported that many of the ingredients that the Willows Inn had advertised as locally sourced often came from global distributors and grocery store chains. The story also accused Wetzel and his management staff of an array of toxic workplace behaviors, including racism and sexual harassment. (According to The New York Times, Wetzel denied most of the allegations, though he admitted to sourcing some ingredients off-island.)
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor fined The Willows Inn $149,624 for illegally requiring some entry-level kitchen staffers to work a one-month trial period for free, and then afterward, for wages as low as $50 per day. The Willows Inn said at the time that they had operated a staging/internship program — in which entry-level kitchen workers work for free in hope of a résumé boost — but that once the Justice Department informed them that the practice was illegal, they ended the program.
The wage theft lawsuit filed by Wolk that resulted in the $600,000 settlement in 2021 included several employees who were affected by the Department of Labor case. Under that settlement, 99 nonsupervisory employees recovered about 75% of unpaid wage claims.
Wetzel denied those allegations in a phone interview with The Seattle Times in March 2021, saying his attorneys advised him to settle or risk a long, expensive court battle.
Wolk said he determined the class date range in that initial lawsuit after The Willows Inn’s attorneys told him that the restaurant had ended its controversial stage program and was making sure employees were clocking in and out for all work. But more employees who’d worked at The Willows Inn after the December 2017 end date started coming to him to say they, too, had not been adequately paid for labor.
The Willows Inn also currently faces three civil cases in state and federal courts. All three were brought against the restaurant by former employees.
This $1,375,000 settlement was finalized on July 8. According to Wolk, The Willows Inn chose not to appeal the settlement and checks were distributed to the 137 members of the claimant class in September. Under the settlement, the class will recover about 75% of unpaid wage claims.
“[The Willows Inn] has the capacity to do great things, the food is fantastic. If they would just treat their employees fairly, none of this would be happening,” Wolk said.