After a busy year for non-compete regulation at the state level, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held a public workshop last Thursday in Washington D.C. to examine the legal basis and economic support for a contemplated FTC rule restricting the use of non-compete clauses in employment agreements. A link to the FTC’s webpage with details about the workshop is located here: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/events-calendar/.
The workshop brought together experts from academia, organized labor and the private sector to discuss the impact of non-competes on the American workforce and overall economy. Multiple panels involved presentations of academic studies taking the position that non-competes negatively impact workers and the labor market. In particular, there appeared to be broad consensus among panel presenters that non-competes restrict worker mobility, limit the exchange of information, and cause a suppression of wages. One study estimated that an outright ban on non-competes clauses would cause wages of workers in the U.S. to increase, on average, by approximately 7%.
There was also discussion about the potentially positive impact of non-compete agreements for certain categories of employees, such as physicians and CEOS. In particular, one study found that physician groups that utilized non-competes saw doctors make significantly more patient referrals within the physician group and led to higher overall earnings. Moreover, the study found CEOs bound by non-compete clauses tend to be more accountable and typically receive higher compensation.
There was also significant discussion regarding the FTC’s authority to promulgate a rule regulating the use of non-compete agreements. Several participants noted that the FTC has broad statutory authority to regulate unfair competition. Non-competes could theoretically fall within the FTC’s authority pursuant to the FTC’s view that non-compete agreements are anti-competitive and an unfair restraint on the ability of employers to compete for labor.
Overall, workshop participants agreed that more empirical evidence is needed before there can be meaningful discussion about an outright ban of non-compete agreements. Other proposals for an FTC rule included setting a nationwide minimum earnings threshold for workers against whom a non-compete may be enforced and requiring employers to disclose the terms of a non-compete with an offer of employment (not after an offer has been accepted).
To aid its continuing analysis of non-competes, the FTC is seeking public comments on several questions aimed to determine how the Commission should focus its rulemaking efforts. Public comments are due by February 20, 2020. More information about submitting a public comment to the FTC can be found at the link above. Trade Secrets Watch will continue to monitor developments from the FTC.