Employers want to know: will 2022 mark the end of the employee non-compete agreement?

Federal Efforts

In July 2021, President Biden signed an executive order aimed at promoting competition in the U.S. economy. The executive order encourages the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to ban or limit employee non-compete agreements. According to the Biden administration, this FTC-directed crackdown on non-competes is meant to “curtail the unfair use of non-compete clauses and other clauses or agreements that may unfairly limit worker mobility.” In his remarks last summer, President Biden noted that non-competes not only affect highly paid executives but also tend to unfairly target low-wage earners who should be free to take a better job if given the opportunity.

A non-compete agreement is essentially a contract wherein an employee agrees not to work for or otherwise engage with competing businesses, and/or not to use information learned during employment, when their current employment ends. The purpose of these types of agreements (also known as restrictive covenants) is to avoid competition for an agreed-upon period of time after an employee leaves.

Since the executive order in July 2021, the FTC has not initiated any action or rule regarding non-compete agreements. Part of this delay involves a vacancy on the FTC Committee, which is required to have five members. President Biden recently resubmitted a nomination for Georgetown University Law Professor Alvaro Bedoya, but until the vacancy is filled and a fifth Committee member confirmed, the FTC is unlikely to take concrete action on non-compete agreements.

Besides the Biden administration’s executive order, there have been other federal efforts to prohibit non-compete agreements. First introduced in January 2019, Congress’s Freedom to Compete Act amends the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to prohibit an employer from enforcing or threatening to enforce any non-compete agreement in employment contracts with certain entry-level, lower wage workers. The Act is currently stalled in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. 

New York State Efforts

As the law currently stands in New York, non-compete agreements are generally permitted as long as they (1) are necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests, (2) do not pose an undue hardship on the employee, (3) do not harm the public, and (4) are reasonable in time period and geographic scope.

Even if the federal rule change does not come to pass, the future of non-compete agreements in New York could soon change regardless. During her first State of the State address in January 2022, Governor Hochul pledged to ban non-compete agreements in New York State for workers making below the median wage in the state.

Several other states have already amended their own laws pertaining to non-compete agreements. Oregon and Illinois recently prohibited non-competes for certain employees earning less than a certain salary per year. The District of Columbia has completely banned employee non-compete agreements – a law that will go into effect on April 1, 2022.

While federal and state changes remain uncertain, it’s still important for employers to make sure that all agreements, including non-competes, are tailored to best meet their goals within the law’s limits. Please contact our labor and employment team for guidance.