Sunday, May 7, 2017

As For Those Of Us Who Are Already Working ...

... this article from the Times brings up another subject:  the abusive use by employers of non-compete agreements, even for workers in relatively unskilled jobs.

Traditionally, NCAs (as they are colloquially called in the business and legal worlds) have been used to protect businesses against the possibility that an employee who possesses an unusual and valuable set of skills, or perhaps has control over significant market resources or customers, might leave the company, taking valuable insider knowledge with him or her, and launch a competing business, leaving the original employer at a significant disadvantage for taking the employee into its trust. These contracts are generally limited by state law with regard to the types of restrictions that a company can place on a departing employee.  They cannot be indefinite with regard to the limits on time, geography, or even the nature of work to be performed.  The intention behind most of these limits is to strike a balance between an employee's freedom to seek work and an employer's right to protect its own economic interests.

And, in any case, the intention has traditionally been to limit the use of NCAs to those employees who are uniquely valuable to an enterprise, and not to employees with highly fungible skills. Employees in the latter category are often the ones with the least amount of job security, and who have the hardest time finding a job in the first place because of their sheer numbers in relation to the opportunities available to them.  I still remember my shock at finding out from a client that he had to sign an NCA for making sandwiches--sandwiches!--at a well-known fast-food chain.  I will not name the chain in question, but I will say this:  if you've eaten any of their sandwiches, you would wonder why they needed to be protected by an NCA (to say absolutely nothing about the prices).

Fortunately, there appears to be some legislative relief on the way, mostly at the state level at this point.  But it's worth considering the current abuse of NCAs in the context of other efforts over the past 40 years to restrict the rights of workers, while enhancing the rights of the investing class. Somewhere along the way, the idea that free enterprise was meant to play out on a level field got lost, and a large number of employers decided that it was OK to tilt it, so long as it was tilted in their direction.

Again, assuming that there will be elections next year, Democrats and other progressives should make restrictions on the use of NCAs a key component of a major proposal on behalf of workers' rights, one that addresses unions, overtime, leave and a whole host of other considerations that once were considered part of the American Way, and that we've somehow allowed ourselves to be convinced are unaffordable.  The truth runs in the other direction:  it's the absence of these considerations that is unaffordable.

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