I thought I was reading “The Onion” when I read that Jimmy John’s was forcing lowly paid sandwich makers in Illinois to sign non-compete agreements. Unfortunately, this is true, and that is tragic for Jimmy John’s employees and employees everywhere.
If there is a silver lining to this dark cloud for employees, it is that these agreements are generally not enforceable. My reading of Nebraska law leads me to believe that a non-compete agreement for a sandwich maker would not be enforceable. In Nebraska, non-compete agreements are only enforceable if 1) they are not injurious to the public and 2) protect some legitimate interest of the employer and 3) are not unduly harsh and oppressive upon the employee. Obviously these non-competes are unduly oppressive and harsh to employees, but they likely also do not protect a legitimate interest of Jimmy John’s. Employers can be protected from unfair, but not ordinary, competition. What unfair competitive advantage can an $8-per-hour sandwich maker give to another sandwich-making shop? Nebraska has struck down non-compete agreements for much more highly paid workers, like sales professionals whose livelihood depends on building relationships with customers. I cannot see how any court could equate a sandwich maker making the minimum wage with a highly-compensated software or farm-products salesperson.
But such legal reasoning is cold comfort for a low-wage worker who is stuck with one of these agreements. Such treatment of Jimmy John’s and fast-food workers in general explains efforts to unionize Jimmy John’s workers and other fast-food workers. If you are a food worker who receives one of these non-compete agreements, I would be happy to consult with you. I would also encourage you to visit jimmyjohsnworkers.org and/or fightfor15.org.
Also remember that an election is 12 days away in Nebraska, Iowa, and most of the rest of the country. Please get out and vote, and vote for candidates who support employee rights.