For a second year in a row, Massachusetts legislators introduced legislation to ban or severely limit the use of noncompete agreements in their state. And for the second year in a row, those efforts failed. Things looked hopeful for awhile, as both houses passed legislation, but then legislators couldn't agree on a compromise. So for the time being the citizens of Massachusetts will have to put up with being limited in their ability to leave their jobs.
This is not a small inconvenience. The White House estimates that 18% of American workers are now covered by noncompete agreements, many of them low wage workers. Jimmy John's has faced two antitrust investigations of its sandwich maker noncompetes. Dog groomers, fast food workers, data entry clerks and other low-level workers are prohibited from working for competitors of their employer for a year or two after they leave, whether they leave voluntarily or are fired because their boss didn't like their shirt or was in a bad mood.
Noncompete agreements are bad for business, bad for innovation, and are certainly bad for workers. Employers can use noncompetes to suppress wages, force employees to stay in abusive jobs, and blackmail employees into feeling trapped in their jobs. So it's a shame the Massachusetts legislature adjourned without a fix.
At least Massachusetts is trying to help their citizens, unlike my home state of Florida, one of the worst states in the nation for employees who want to escape noncompete restrictions. Other states have passed restrictions on noncompetes. Delaware and Colorado ban noncompetes for physicians. Some employees are fighting them through unions. Hawaii banned noncompetes for technology workers and New Mexico banned them for health care workers. Some states ban "sign or be fired" agreements presented after employees start working. Others require pre-hire notice to potential employees that a noncompete will be required. Some allow employees to claim that enforcing a noncompete agreement will cause them undue hardship.
An attempt by Democratic members of Congress to ban them for low wage workers has failed. Now the White House is investigating noncompete agreements and is seeking input from people who have been subjected to unreasonable restrictions.
Bottom line is that it takes real citizens raising holy hell with state and federal legislators and regulators to get the law changed. While there have been efforts to change or limit abusive noncompete agreements, nothing will change unless you speak out. Had the citizens of Massachusetts bombarded legislators with emails and phone calls asking for reform, this year's efforts wouldn't have stalled. So if you think employers shouldn't be able to prevent employees from working for competitors, then call your state legislators and members of Congress and tell them so.
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