The luxury hotel Willows Inn on Lummi Island reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor Industries on Monday for failing to pay employees minimum wage and overtime.
The inn’s high-end restaurant, the Willows Inn, violated federal labor laws when it required new staff to work for free during a month-long probationary period. Workers who made it past the initial stage were paid $50 per day for working up to 14 hours per day with no overtime pay.
The nearly $150,000 settlement will include over $74,000 in unpaid overtime for 19 of the kitchen’s workers. The company will also pay that amount in damages to its employees.
“The restaurant required entry-level kitchen staff known in the industry as ‘stages’ to work one month as a free try-out period before they were considered for paid employment,” the Department of Labor Industries said in a statement. “Once on the payroll, the kitchen workers were paid daily rates from $50 per day for up to 14 hours per day with no consideration of weekly overtime premium.”
Stages were required to perform a variety of tasks, such as collecting herbs, polishing silverware, cleaning dishes, assembling dishes, preparing vegetables, cleaning faciltiies and painting the exterior of the building.
Jeannette Aranda, director of the agency’s Wage and Hour Division in Seattle, says the Willow Inn’s practice is common in the industry, although it’s illegal under federal labor laws.
Law firm Sherr Law Group, not connected to the case, points out on its website that “almost any business decision that you make can be challenged through a dizzying array of federal and state statutes or administrative proceedings.”
The Willow Inn is now paying the price for its controversial – but common – business decision. The inn said it shut down its staging program immediately once the Department of Labor Industries informed them it was illegal.
The restaurant is famous for its expensive meals, which can top out at over $300 per person with gratuity and wine.
The venue has been praised for its innovative menu and use of local produce, which relies heavily on foraged herbs, vegetables from nearby farms and exotic wild game. Blaine Wetzel, the restaurant’s chef, won the James Beard award as the best chef in the Northwest in 2015.
“These were passionate individuals who sought us out for the opportunity to stage at the Willows Inn,” said Raid Johnson, the general manager, in a statement. “All were volunteering chefs, some were compensated in a variety of ways, including daily rate and lodging.”