Non-competes and me

I’ve read the stories this week about how fast-food chains like Jimmy John’s are forcing employees to sign non-compete agreements.

I’ve been asked to sign a non-compete exactly twice in my career, and signed one once, but neither of them was back in my teenage fast-food days.

The first was back in 2005. I was in between jobs and not happy about being in between jobs so I wanted to find something fast. I found an ad for a consulting company looking for IT generalists. It seemed like a nice short-term fit until I could find something permanent, so I applied. I immediately received a link to a web form that asked me questions like how many servers I’d built. I spent 15 minutes answering the questions and received an offer letter. That seemed a bit odd. Then I read the non-compete agreement that was attached. Basically I couldn’t work in IT for anyone else for two years.

A friend assured me it was unenforceable, but I decided to look for other opportunities. A better one materialized soon after. I know they were looking to keep companies from using them as a recruiter to find people, but trying to prevent me from working for non-clients was another problem.

The second was in 2012. I was looking to get a job closer to home, but it had a non-compete. It, too, seemed a bit overly broad, but it came from a human being rather than an automated system so I asked about it. The HR director assured me that they would release me from the non-compete under every circumstance I posed to her. So I took the job. And, true to their word, they released me from the agreement at the end of our contract. Along with four others. The non-compete was intended to keep us from going to a competitor and helping the competitor bid on our contract.

These were skilled jobs, in both cases. The first one required some experience; the latter required experience, certification, and documented continuing education.

They’re a far cry from making sandwiches.

Yes, there are things about how one sandwich shop works that differ from another. But I carry bigger secrets than those with me when I change jobs. Everyone knows that, and accepts it. That’s part of being a skilled worker, regardless of the color of the collar involved.

And trust me, having worked both in fast food and in information security, I know which kind of worker is harder to replace. The fast-food model is designed so that workers are interchangeable and easily replaceable. That’s part of the way they control costs–by replacing a short-order cook with an assembly line of minimum-wage labor.

The non-compete is just to give the company more leverage. They have plenty–a worker who’s working in a restaurant probably has only one other choice, which is retail, and sometimes retail isn’t an option. But even employees with limited options can get unhappy. Unhappy employees are a problem. Unhappy smart employees are a bigger problem. Especially the ones who are smarter than management. They’re rare, but they come along once in a while.

When I was working fast food, I could say no sometimes. And I did. Management knew I intended to go to college and not to schedule me to close on school nights. College was my leverage. And they put up with it because they knew when I came in to work, I’d show up on time, and if they gave me a list of things to do I’d get those things done and I’d make the manager’s life easier for those few hours I was there.

Slap a non-compete on me though, and I wouldn’t have been able to find another job, so managers could have threatened me all they wanted. “You’ll never work in this town again” gains a lot of credibility.

That’s all this is: a power play to keep wages down.

Who are low wages good for? Well, I’ll share an observation, and you can decide for yourself. When you give a white-collar worker like me a raise, I have a choice of what to do with it. But when a low-wage worker gets a raise, that worker has far fewer choices. A higher percentage of that money is going to get spent and end up in circulation.

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