One of the most expensive restaurants in Washington state has been underpaying its workers, according to a nearly $150,000 settlement announced Monday by the U.S. Department of Labor.
At the Willows Inn on sleepy Lummi Island in Whatcom County, diners feast nightly on a sumptuous $195 tasting menu. Wine parings and an automatic 20 percent gratuity could bring each diner’s supper bill to $342. A night in one of the inn’s luxury rooms cost hundreds more.
The venue has won national praise for its inventive, intensely local fare, which runs from foraged local herbs and vegetables to exotic wild game and seafood. The restaurant’s leader, Blaine Wetzel, won a prestigious James Beard award as the Northwest’s best chef in 2015.
Federal investigators found this ambitious endeavor was carried out, in part, by staffers working for free or sub-minimum wages, according to a Department of Labor press statement.
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New hires were expected to come in as “stages,” employees who worked for free for their first month, the federal agency said. After being added to the payroll, “the kitchen workers were paid daily rates from $50 per day for up to 14 hours a day with no consideration of weekly overtime,” the Department of Labor’s news release states.
In the settlement, Willows Inn agreed to pay $74,812 in unpaid overtime to 19 kitchen workers and an equal amount to them in damages. The company also canceled its unpaid “stage program,” a European invention that some fine-dining restaurants in America have imported in recent years.
In an emailed statement, Willows Inn said the restaurant had used the staging program to give young chefs work experience and that the program had been immediately killed once the federal agency told Willows Inn it is illegal.
“These were passionate individuals who sought us out for the opportunity to stage at the Willows Inn,” according to the statement from the facility’s general manager, Reid Johnson. “All were volunteering chefs, some were compensated in a variety of ways including daily rate and lodging.”
The Department of Labor’s account says the unpaid people were responsible for menial work.
“The stages were asked to perform kitchen work including cleaning dishes, polishing silverware, collecting herbs, prepping vegetables and assembling dishes,” the federal agency said in the settlement announcement. “The stages also devoted hours to cleaning facilities and painting the exterior of Willow Inn buildings.”