The Willows Inn – Lummi Islands nationally renowned restaurant – has agreed to pay $ 600,000 to settle a class action lawsuit for alleged wage theft. In the 2017 lawsuit, former employees at Willows Inn chef / co-owner Blaine Wetzel and management accused “failure to pay the minimum wage for all work done, overtime wages, and the provision or payment of rest and meal breaks under Washington Right.” In October In 2020 both parties reached an agreement.
The lawsuit, first reported by the Seattle Times, relates to a notice of labor violations the restaurant received about four years ago at about the same time. At the time, the Willows Inn was distributing US $ 149,000 in unpaid wages and damages to 19 kitchen workers, according to a Department of Labor (DOL) investigation. In its 2017 report, the Department of Labor claimed Willows Inn “violated fair labor law by not paying its employees overtime and a minimum wage.”
According to the 2017 DOL report, the Willows Inn broke labor laws by having its “stages” – culinary interns who typically work for free in upscale restaurants – work up to 14 hours a day with no overtime and daily rates as low as $ 50 . In response, the restaurant stopped its production program, but denied any wrongdoing – and the allegations are still pushed back today.
“After more than three years in which attorneys defended us against these claims, we had to settle because of the ongoing and increasing legal fees,” Wetzel told Eater Seattle, emphasizing that the allegations were “in no way accurate”. He added that the wording used in the lawsuit is “a tool that this specialized law firm is using to significantly tighten a quote we received from 2016.”
Wetzel also stated that the restaurant has not approved “employees” or “unaccredited interns” since receiving the Department of Labor quote in 2016 and currently complies with all Washington state wage and labor laws.
The Seattle Times reports that 99 non-regulatory employees have been identified as members of the class action and will receive a portion of the settlement amount, reclaiming approximately 75 percent of the loss of wages. Under the terms of the agreement, it is documented that Wetzel and the defendants do not admit any wrongdoing, and the former employees who originally filed the lawsuit are bound by a confidentiality policy.
After COVID measures delayed their usual annual opening schedule in March 2020, the Willows Inn resumed operations last summer in limited capacity. As a seasonal operation, it is currently closed for the winter.
Eater Seattle has reached out to the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and will update this article as more information becomes available.