The Willows Inn — Lummi Island’s nationally renowned fine dining establishment — has agreed to pay $600,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit for alleged wage theft. In the lawsuit, filed in 2017, former employees accused Willows Inn head chef/co-owner Blaine Wetzel and management for “failing to pay minimum wage for all work performed, overtime wages, and to provide or pay for rest and meal breaks under Washington law.” A settlement was agreed upon by both parties in October 2020.
The lawsuit — which the Seattle Times first reported — is related to a labor violation notice the restaurant received around the same time, roughly four years ago. At the time, the Willows Inn doled out $149,000 in unpaid wages and damages to 19 kitchen staff members, following a Department of Labor (DOL) investigation. In its report from 2017, the Labor Department claimed Willows Inn “violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay overtime and minimum wage to its employees.”
According to the 2017 DOL report, the Willows Inn violated labor laws by having its “stages” — culinary interns who generally work for free in fine-dining restaurants — work for as many as 14 hours a day, with no overtime, and day rates as low as $50. In response, the restaurant nixed its staging program, but denied any wrongdoing — and continues to push back on the allegations today.
“After over three years of lawyers defending us against these claims, we were moved to settle due to current and mounting legal fees,” Wetzel told Eater Seattle, emphasizing that the allegations “are in no way accurate.” He added that the wording used in the lawsuit “is a tool that this specialized law firm uses to greatly exacerbate a citation we received from 2016.”
Wetzel also stated that the restaurant has not allowed any “staigiers” or “unaccredited interns” since receiving the labor department’s citation in 2016 and currently follows all Washington State wage and labor laws.
The Seattle Times reports that 99 non-supervisory employees were identified as members of the class-action lawsuit, and will receive a portion of the settlement sum, recovering about 75 percent of lost wages. Under the terms of the agreement, it’s documented that Wetzel and the defendants are not admitting to any wrongdoing, and the former employees who initially filed the suit are bound by a non-disclosure provision.
After COVID measures delayed its usual annual opening plan in March 2020, the Willows Inn resumed service in a limited capacity last summer. As a seasonal operation, it is currently closed for the winter.
Eater Seattle reached out to the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and will update this article as more info is provided.