The Willows Inn on Lummi Island to pay workers $149K for wage, overtime violations

The premier Pacific Northwest destination restaurant is canceling its “stage” apprenticeship program following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor — one that has implications for high-end restaurants and their entry-level workers across the country.

Following a U.S. Department of Labor investigation, The Willows Inn on Lummi Island will pay $74,812 in unpaid overtime, plus an equal amount in damages, to 19 kitchen workers, for a total of $149,624. The Labor Department found that as part of its “stage” program — a European-style apprenticeship common in the upper echelons of the restaurant industry worldwide — The Willows Inn illegally required entry-level kitchen staff to work a one-month trial period for free, then for wages as low as $50 a day for up to 14-hour days, with no overtime.

A couple hours north of Seattle, The Willows Inn is widely recognized as a top-tier destination for high-end Pacific Northwest dining. Chef Blaine Wetzel won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest last spring, and in December, the restaurant was named one of Eater’s Best Restaurants in America. Wetzel has gained acclaim (including from me) for his hyperlocal cuisine, inspired by his three years cooking at world-famous Noma in Copenhagen. (It’s probable that his work there began as an unpaid stage — Wetzel has not returned a call for comment.) The Daily Meal named The Willows Inn the most expensive restaurant in Washington state in May.

At The Willows Inn, the Labor Department reports, the stage program included “cleaning dishes, polishing silverware, collecting herbs, prepping vegetables and assembling dishes,” as well as “cleaning facilities and painting the exterior of Willows Inn buildings.” As part of the settlement, the company has canceled its stage program.

As the Labor Department notes, many restaurants rely on “ ‘stages’ (originates from the French word ‘stagiaire,’ meaning trainee, apprentice or intern) to supply unpaid labor,” both here and abroad. Chefs like Wetzel himself are a product of this widespread system, meant to expose hopeful newcomers to the ways of the greats while they carry out the kitchens’ most menial labor (and apparently, in some cases, paint the buildings, too). It’s time-honored in Europe, but unpaid — or nearly unpaid — labor doesn’t fly in the United States. 

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