The Willow Inn settles another case involving back pay.
The Willows Inn, a restaurant on Lummi Island, was previously accused of underpaying its employees. Now the nationally recognized eatery will pay $600,000 to settle a wage theft class-action lawsuit – although, as part of the deal, management will not admit to any wrongdoing and the two employees who originally filed the suit are bound by a non-disclosure agreement preventing them from discussing the matter. Under the settlement, the nearly 100 non-supervisory employees identified as members will received approximately 75% of their unpaid wage claims, or an estimated $600,000.
The suit was originally filed in Whatcom County Superior Court in July 2017 with plaintiffs’ attorneys alleging 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,” according to court documents. For some employees, taking into consideration the hours they clocked, their compensation “amounted to less than minimum wage.”
The class-action complaint contends, “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…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.” Employees said they consistently worked more than 40 hours a week without overtime pay. Management also had a policy of paying part of employees’ tips to the owners and/or supervisors.
The Willows Inn chef and owner Blaine Wetzel denied the allegations, but he decided to settle to reduce legal fees. The settlement is scheduled to be approved by a Whatcom County Superior Court judge on March 12. If approved, back pay will be offer to employees who worked at the Willows Inn from July 13, 2014 through Dec. 21, 2017, according to court documents.
This isn’t Willow Inn’s first brush with the law. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor fined restaurant $149,624 for illegally requiring some entry-level kitchen staffers to work a one-month trial period for free. After the “probationary period,” it would pay those workers as low as $50 a day for up to fourteen hours per day.
In the 2017 case, the restaurant classified entry-level kitchen staff as “stages” or unpaid interns.” The Willows Inn “paid some employees on an hourly basis, others they paid a daily rate and others did not receive any wages for their work,” according to court documents. The agency determined this practice violated the Fair Labor Standards Act.
At the time, Jeanette Aranda, director of the Wage and Hour Division’s 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. This case allows us to level the playing field for employers who play by the rules by complying with the law. We are dedicated to educating and protecting both workers and employers.”