The premier Pacific Northwest destination restaurant is canceling its "stage" apprenticeship program following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor — one that has implications for high-end restaurants and their entry-level workers across the country.

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Following a U.S. Department of Labor investigation, The Willows Inn on Lummi Island will pay $74,812 in unpaid overtime, plus an equal amount in damages, to 19 kitchen workers, for a total of $149,624. The Labor Department found that as part of its “stage” program — a European-style apprenticeship common in the upper echelons of the restaurant industry worldwide — The Willows Inn illegally required entry-level kitchen staff to work a one-month trial period for free, then for wages as low as $50 a day for up to 14-hour days, with no overtime.

A couple hours north of Seattle, The Willows Inn is widely recognized as a top-tier destination for high-end Pacific Northwest dining. Chef Blaine Wetzel won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest last spring, and in December, the restaurant was named one of Eater’s Best Restaurants in America. Wetzel has gained acclaim (including from me) for his hyperlocal cuisine, inspired by his three years cooking at world-famous Noma in Copenhagen. (It’s probable that his work there began as an unpaid stage — Wetzel has not returned a call for comment.) The Daily Meal named The Willows Inn the most expensive restaurant in Washington state in May.

At The Willows Inn, the Labor Department reports, the stage program included “cleaning dishes, polishing silverware, collecting herbs, prepping vegetables and assembling dishes,” as well as “cleaning facilities and painting the exterior of Willows Inn buildings.” As part of the settlement, the company has canceled its stage program.

As the Labor Department notes, many restaurants rely on “ ‘stages’ (originates from the French word ‘stagiaire,’ meaning trainee, apprentice or intern) to supply unpaid labor,” both here and abroad. Chefs like Wetzel himself are a product of this widespread system, meant to expose hopeful newcomers to the ways of the greats while they carry out the kitchens’ most menial labor (and apparently, in some cases, paint the buildings, too). It’s time-honored in Europe, but unpaid — or nearly unpaid — labor doesn’t fly in the United States. 

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In a statement, Jeanette Aranda, director of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division office in Seattle, said, “We hope this case can educate others in the high-end restaurant world that ‘staging,’ while common, is unfair to workers, and it is illegal.” Reached by phone, Aranda said she could not disclose whether other restaurants would be investigated for similar violations.

“We do directed investigations based on issues that we find are common in the industry,” she said. “We don’t actually disclose why we did the investigation” in any particular case, Aranda said. “If we do get a complaint, we will be responding to that,” she noted.

The high-end restaurant industry in the U.S. is now on notice. And, as the rotating cast of potato-peelers and herb-gatherers becomes, presumably quickly, properly paid employees, the high-end price tags on those haute experiences will very likely climb even higher. There’s an argument to be made that this puts the highest class of U.S. restaurants at a disadvantage versus those at the same level elsewhere around the globe, which will continue using stage labor. But in the U.S., as the Department of Labor’s action here shows, we’re committed to seeing that people are paid for their work.

UPDATE: From The Willows Inn:

“We operated a stage and internship program that allowed young chefs to stage in our kitchen to gain work experience.  These were passionate individuals who sought us out for the opportunity to stage at The Willows Inn. All were volunteering chefs, some were compensated in variety of ways including daily rate and lodging. Once we were informed by the Department of Labor that the practice of staging was illegal we ended the program immediately.”