The truth about noncompetes and Massachusetts politics

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In Massachusetts, we pride ourselves on attracting people who devote years — and often $100,000 or more — to earning an advanced degree. And we like to brag about being the state with the most educated workforce.

But once you’ve crossed the stage, framed your diploma, and actually joined that workforce, you’re often required to sign a contract that promises you won’t jump to a competitive company when you leave — sitting on the sidelines for a year or longer. That contract is valid even if your job responsibilities change, your salary is cut, or you’re laid off.

Effectively, we’re telling workers that even if they’ve just spent six years earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry or computer science, once they spend a year or two working for an employer, that employer has invested more in them than they have invested in themselves and should therefore be allowed to curtail where they can work next.

We’ve now spent about a decade debating whether to change that — and watching state legislators file bills that would limit the influence that your current employer has on where you can work next. But a compromise is now being hashed out on Beacon Hill, and it could head to the full Legislature for a vote later this spring.

Over the past decade, I have been collecting stories about how these contracts restrict the freedom of everyone from video game developers to after-school gymnastics instructors to practice their craft where they want.

Let me tell you what should happen and what looks likely to happen.

First, some terminology. These contracts are technically called “employee noncompete agreements” because they are a promise that a worker won’t leave one company to go work for a rival, at least for a specified period of time.

It’s important to note that there are a few professions that have exempted themselves from having to work under these contracts, including doctors and lawyers. They can leave one medical practice or law firm Friday and start working for another Monday.

But lawyers like the status quo — because these noncompete contracts sometimes generate business for them, in the form of lawsuits. Oh, and nearly a quarter of our state legislators list their profession as attorney, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

When an attorney explains to you why businesses need to be able to lock up their workforce with noncompete agreements, here is a handy question to ask: How is it that law…

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