Through non-compete clauses, employers have robbed tens of millions of workers of the right to practice their trade where they want. Non-competes can bar workers from accepting new employment in their field or industry for a year or more after they leave. Policymakers are now engaged in a largely unacknowledged debate over how to regulate non-competes. Federal and state legislators are deciding whether the right to leave should be universal or granted to only some workers. Should all workers have the freedom to find and take new work when and where they want, or should this right be conditional on income or occupation?
Earlier this fall, Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Todd Young introduced the Workforce Mobility Act in the Senate, which would ban non-competes for all workers across America. Other lawmakers have pursued more targeted solutions. For instance, in 2019, legislators in Maryland, Maine, and New Hampshire passed bills prohibiting non-competes for low-wage workers. The city council in Washington, D.C. has proposed outlawing non-competes for workers making up to $87,654. In 2018, Colorado was even more “surgical” and limited non-competes for physicians treating rare disorders.
A universal national solution is necessary. The freedom to exit should be a basic right, not a privilege for a subset of workers. Even if Congress does not pass the Workforce Mobility Act of Senators Murphy and Young, the next president, acting through the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), can ban non-competes and restore all workers’ freedom to practice their trade. Nineteen state attorneys general endorsed FTC action as “offer[ing] the quickest, most comprehensive regulatory path to protecting all workers from these exploitative contracts.”