US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Votes to Ban Non-Compete Agreements

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), led by Chair Lina Khan, cast a decisive 3-2 vote to eliminate non-compete agreements, which are said to depress worker's wages by limiting their ability to bargain with rival employers.

US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Votes to Ban Non-Compete Agreements

In a landmark decision, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), under the leadership of Chair Lina Khan, has voted 3-2 to abolish non-compete agreements, marking a significant shift in employment practices in the United States. The ruling, set to take effect in 120 days, will prohibit nearly all non-compete clauses in employment contracts, except for those within certain nonprofits and regulated industries.

Non-compete agreements, once considered a tool for protecting proprietary information and fostering innovation, have been a subject of scrutiny due to their detrimental effects on wages and business dynamism. Over the past two decades, the proliferation of these contracts has skyrocketed, extending beyond high-level executives to encompass workers in diverse roles, including hair stylists, physicians, cashiers and even entry-level positions. According to The New York Times, "30% of hair stylists work under a non-compete, as do 45% of family physicians."

The FTC's decision to eliminate these agreements stems from extensive empirical evidence indicating adverse impacts, including but not limited to wage depression. Non-competes are also widely believed to facilitate consolidation, especially in health care, where doctors are trapped into practices bought by private equity groups.

Critics argue that non-compete agreements restrict employees' freedom and perpetuate unfair labor practices, effectively tethering individuals to specific employers and geographic locations. Moreover, anecdotal evidence highlights instances of abuse, where employees endure harassment or remain trapped in unfavorable working conditions due to contractual obligations. The widespread use of non-compete clauses has been attributed to their ease of inclusion in employment contracts, facilitated by advancements in technology.

The political landscape surrounding the FTC's decision has garnered considerable attention, with widespread support for the ban among the public. However, corporate interests, represented by entities such as the US Chamber of Commerce, have expressed opposition to the ruling, signaling legal challenges for the decision on the near horizon. Notably, well-known conservative lawyer Eugene Scalia, the son of former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, has filed a lawsuit against the FTC, contesting the legality of the non-compete ban and raising constitutional concerns regarding the commission's authority.

Scalia's arguments against the FTC's authority to enact the ban center on statutory interpretation and judicial precedent, questioning the commission's mandate to regulate unfair methods of competition. However, proponents of the ban assert that the FTC's authority is firmly established in legislative text and historical court rulings, empowering the commission to address evolving economic challenges.

The legal battle over the non-compete ban is expected to unfold in the courts. The case is initially slated to be heard by Judge Ada Brown, with potential appeals to higher courts, including the Fifth Circuit and the Supreme Court. The outcome of the legal challenge holds significant ramifications for both employers and employees, with consequences for the future landscape of labor relations and regulatory oversight.

If the FTC's rule withstands legal scrutiny, it would not only render non-compete agreements unenforceable, but also pave the way for broader regulatory initiatives targeting unfair business practices. Conversely, a ruling against the FTC could curtail the commission's authority and impede efforts to address systemic issues in the labor market.

The decision to ban non-compete agreements will undoubtedly be celebrated as a significant victory by labor rights advocates and signals the Biden administration’s resolve towards shaping an employment landscape that is friendlier to labor. The ensuing legal battle over the future of non-competes will revisit the sharp, often divisive, debate between conservatives and liberals on the exact specifications of economic regulation and free market principles in the American economy.