FTC strikes blow for economic freedom by banning non-compete clauses

Attorney David Betras

BKM Managing Partner David Betras

Nearly every Thursday evening for more than 30 years I’ve hosted “Legally Speaking” on WKBN 570. During the program, which is now also aired live on our Facebook page, YouTube channel, and Instagram, I and attorneys from my firm answer listener questions, dispense sage, insightful, and free legal advice, and engage in entertaining and informative banter about various aspects of the law.

Over the course of the approximately 1,500 episodes that have been broadcast some issues have been raised so many times they’ve made it onto the Legally Speaking “greatest hits” list. They include disputes among neighbors related to property damage caused by trees and tree branches that crash to earth, domestic relations disputes, disputes among heirs, whether local governments can be forced to pay for flat tires and ruined wheels caused by potholes, and the enforceability of employment non-compete agreements.

That non-competes are a frequent topic of discussion on the show may come as a surprise to some. It shouldn’t. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), 30 million people or one in five American workers are bound by restrictive agreements that trap them in jobs they no longer want or prevent them from accepting new positions that offer better pay and working conditions.

And, as this compelling video and the desperate people who call Legally Speaking make clear, the agreements rob everyone from CEOs, to tech workers, to salespeople, to hair stylists of their freedom to choose where and by whom they are employed. Originally intended to prevent CEOs and other executives from stealing trade secrets, studies show that millions of low paid workers like janitors, cooks, and waiters, are subject to the agreements even though they have no access to trade secrets or confidential corporate information.

We’re often asked if Ohioans can be forced to sign non-competes as a condition of employment and once signed if they can be enforced. The answer to the former question is yes, people may be forced to sign the agreements as a condition of employment. The response to the latter is more complicated. Non-competes are enforceable if a judge finds they are “reasonable” under this three-part test that was developed by the Ohio Supreme Court. To pass the test, agreements must not:

  • Be greater than necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests
  • Impose undue hardship on the employee
  • Be injurious to the public

But, as we tell those who call us to seek advice, challenging a non-compete can be a costly and time-consuming endeavor that most workers who find themselves chained to a job are unable to afford, a fact that adds to the fundamental unfairness of a situation that robs Americans of their basic economic rights.

Fortunately, and in an action that proves government can actually solve problems, the FTC enacted a nationwide ban on new non-competes by a 3-2 vote on April 23. The action came two years after President Biden urged Commission members to “curtail the unfair use of the agreements.” More than 26,000 people submitted public comments about the proposed rule during the time it was under consideration.

“Noncompete clauses keep wages low, suppress new ideas, and rob the American economy of dynamism, including from the more than 8,500 new startups that would be created a year once noncompetes are banned,” FTC Chair Lina M. Khan said in a statement issued following the vote. “The FTC’s final rule…will ensure Americans have the freedom to pursue a new job, start a new business, or bring a new idea to market.”

Predictably, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which had vehemently opposed the ban, decried the vote and said it would sue to block imposition of the rule because it would “undermine American businesses’ ability to remain competitive.”

I’m not quite sure how empowering a hair stylist in Toledo to work in a salon where she can make more money or enabling an auto mechanic to accept a better paying job will undermine the American economy, but in my opinion freeing millions of Americans to pursue their careers and their dreams is worth the risk.