The Willows Inn, a nationally acclaimed restaurant on Lummi Island that has previously been accused of underpaying its employees, has agreed to pay $600,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit over accusations of wage theft.
As part of the preliminary settlement, management at The Willows Inn has not admitted to any wrongdoing, and the two employees who filed the suit are bound by a non-disclosure agreement that prevents them from discussing the labor dispute.
But in the lawsuit filed in Whatcom County Superior Court in July 2017, employees lodged a litany of complaints. The plaintiffs’ attorneys alleged that The Willows Inn had violated state labor and wage laws including the withholding of tips and overtime pay, and in some cases, that it did not pay employees at all for shifts worked.
For some employees, including those who cook, clean and service The Willows Inn, all the hours worked amounted to “less than minimum wage,” according to the suit.
According to the class-action complaint, instead of compensating these employees for all hours worked, management willfully implemented a pay scheme that denied employees their right to overtime and in some cases, any wages for their work.
According to the lawsuit, employees were forced to work long hours and were denied meal and rest breaks, and they alleged that management was “aware of and encouraged this practice.”
At the busy 30-seat restaurant, employees consistently worked more than 40 hours a week but were denied overtime pay, according to court documents. The lawsuit also claimed management “had a consistent policy of paying a portion of employees’ tips to owners and/or managers.”
Under the settlement, the 99 non-supervisory employees identified as members of the class-action suit will recover about 75% of the unpaid wage claims, which the parties estimate will total $600,000.
In a recent phone interview, The Willows Inn chef and owner Blaine Wetzel denied the allegations, but said his attorneys advised him to settle or risk a long, protracted court battle that would ultimately cost much more than $600,000 in legal fees.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs declined to comment.
The settlement, which is scheduled to be approved by a Whatcom County Superior Court judge on March 12, entitles back pay for the employees who worked at the Willows Inn from July 13, 2014 through Dec. 21, 2017, according to court documents.
This is not the first time the restaurant has been accused of wage theft. 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, then after that probationary period, paying those workers as low as $50 a day for work days that ran as long as 14 hours.
In that dispute with the Department of Labor, The Willows Inn classified those entry-level kitchen workers in question as “stages” or unpaid interns. “Staging,” from the French word “stagiaire,” is an industry term for an apprentice program used at top-tier restaurants in Europe and Japan, where employees work as unpaid interns for a chance to train under a famous chef or to earn a recommendation to boost their resume.
But the Department of Labor ruled that the practice of “staging” violated the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Wage theft has become a major legal controversy in the restaurant industry of late, as unions and proponents of the $15 minimum wage increase have encouraged cooks and servers to sue their bosses over wage disputes. Nationally, cooks and other service-industry workers have filed class-action suits against chains such as McDonald’s and Chipotle. Locally, in 2019, Tom Douglas agreed to pay $2.4 million to settle a class action suit over tip distribution and a lack of work breaks for employees at his restaurants.
The Willows Inn is the latest big-name restaurant to be involved in a court fight over wages and tips. The small island restaurant is headed by Wetzel, who has garnered a number of honors including “Best New Chef of 2012” from Food & Wine magazine and “Rising Star Chef of the Year” from the James Beard Awards in 2014.
Under Wetzel, the restaurant has consistently been recognized as one of the best in the country, with restaurant critics from all over North America booking flights to Seattle, driving two hours north and taking the ferry ride to Lummi Island for dinner. In 2011, The New York Times declared Willows Inn one of “10 restaurants worth a plane ride.”
According to the lawsuit, The Willows Inn “paid some employees on an hourly basis, others they paid a daily rate and others (called stages) did not receive any wages for their work.”