Non-compete Agreements Popping Up in Uncommon Industries

If you think non-competes are just for executives and scientists, you should add the guy who makes your sandwich at Jimmy John’s. The Huffington Post recently reported that Jimmy Johns is one of a number of low-wage-field companies requiring non-compete clauses with workers. The New York Times and The Seattle Times similarly reported on the increased use of non-compete clauses for such positions as hair stylists, event planners, and camp counselors.

Generally, non-compete agreements are specific provisions in the employee’s contract that restrict an employee from working for a competitor after his or her employment ends. Non-competes are usually limited in scope, duration, and geography (i.e. Doctor may not practice anesthesiology for 1-year within a 5 mile radius upon leaving employment).[1] The agreements can have a significant impact on an employee seeking part-time work during or full-time work after his employment ends.

In Washington, non-compete agreements must be “reasonable and lawful.”[2] Generally, two factors are used to determine whether a non-compete is reasonable: the geographic scope of the restraint and the time period for which an employee is restrained.[3] Washington Courts recognize the competing interests of an employee’s desire and right to work after leaving employment and an employer’s interest in protecting an established client base and investment in employee training.

However, the growing trend in low-wage workers being subject to non-competes has garnered increased criticism as examples of employers using unfair leverage over low-wage workers; low wage workers who routinely lack the bargaining power or benefit of a lawyer in drafting a more reasonable agreement.

For further reading, see San Diego Law Professor Orly Lobel’s book on the rise of non-competes in “Talent Wants to Be Free: Why We Should Learn to Love Leaks, Raids, and Free Riding.”

[1] See also Emerick v. Cardiac Study Ctr., Inc., P.S., 170 Wash. App. 248, 258, 286 P.3d 689, 694, as amended (Aug. 8, 2012), review denied sub nom. Emerick v. Cardiac Study Ctr., Inc., 175 Wash. 2d 1028, 291 P.3d 254 (2012) (Washington courts have not yet held that restrictive covenants between physicians are unenforceable).

[2] See Wood v. May, 73 Wn.2d 307, 313, 438 P.2d 587 (1968)

[3] See, e.g. Alexander & Alexander, Inc. v. Wohlman, 19 Wn. App. 670, 688, 578 P.2d 530 (1978) (100-mile restriction to apply only to customers of employer’s Seattle office);