Are Non-competes Hurting Seattle’s Tech Industry?

This was the question posed more broadly in Fortune’s recent article “Are noncompete agreements hurting tech innovation?”

Washington joins Massachusetts and Rhode Island in considering new legislation that would severely limit or void many non-compete agreements. Known in Washington as House Bill 1926, the law would principally require that “every contract by which a person is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind is to that extent void.” If enacted, Washington would join other leading states like California that severely limit non-compete agreements in employee contracts.

Supporters of the bill point to the enormous success of the tech industry in Silicon Valley where similar bans exist. However, critics say non-competes are necessary to protect the employer’s investment in training, education, and exposure to confidential company information.

For the casual reader, non-competes agreements in Washington are often thought of in three parts: (1) agreements to not work for a competitor/customer; (2) agreements to not solicit customers; and (3) agreements to not solicit employees. The three are colloquially thought of as one agreement. However, Washington courts view each of these provisions differently with the burden on the employer to show that the agreement is reasonable.[1]

The debate surrounding non-compete agreements have increased due to recent reports of non-compete clauses showing up in low-wage manual labor contracts. The New York Times reported in 2014 of non-compete agreements showing up in Jimmy John’s employee contracts. The company’s actions have prompted congressional attention to ban non-competes for certain worker categories or workers earning below a monetary threshold. This is a notable contrast to non-competes widespread use for high-wage earners such as executives, engineers, scientists and high-commission sales employees.

[1] Sheppard v. Blackstock Lumber Co. 85 Wn.2d 929, 933, 540 P.2d 1373 (1975).

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);