Biweekly FTC Roundup: Highly Skilled Sandwich Maker Edition

Daniel Gilman —  12 January 2023 — Leave a comment

Happy New Year? Right, Happy New Year! 

The big news from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is all about noncompetes. From what were once the realms of labor and contract law, noncompetes are terms in employment contracts that limit in various ways the ability of an employee to work at a competing firm after separation from the signatory firm. They’ve been a matter of increasing interest to economists, policymakers, and enforcers for several reasons. For one, there have been prominent news reports of noncompetes used in dubious places; the traditional justifications for noncompetes seem strained when applied to low-wage workers, so why are we reading about noncompetes binding sandwich-makers at Jimmy John’s? 

For another, there’s been increased interest in the application of antitrust to labor markets more generally. One example among many: a joint FTC/U.S. Justice Department workshop in December 2021.

Common-law cases involving one or another form of noncompete go back several hundred years. So, what’s new? First, on Jan. 4, the FTC announced settlements with three firms regarding their use of noncompetes, which the FTC had alleged to violate Section 5. These are consent orders, not precedential decisions. The complaints were, presumably, based on rule-of-reason analyses of facts, circumstances, and effects. On the other hand, the Commission’s recent Section 5 policy statement seemed to disavow the time-honored (and Supreme-Court-affirmed) application of the rule of reason. I wrote about it here, and with Gus Hurwitz here. My ICLE colleagues Dirk Auer, Brian Albrecht, and Jonathan Barnett did too, among others. 

The Commission’s press release seemed awfully general:

Noncompete restrictions harm both workers and competing businesses. For workers, noncompete restrictions lead to lower wages and salaries, reduced benefits, and less favorable working conditions. For businesses, these restrictions block competitors from entering and expanding their businesses.

Always? Distinct facts and circumstances? Commissioner Christine Wilson noted the brevity of the statement in her dissent

…each Complaint runs three pages, with a large percentage of the text devoted to boilerplate language. Given how brief they are, it is not surprising that the complaints are woefully devoid of details that would support the Commission’s allegations. In short, I have seen no evidence of anticompetitive effects that would give me reason to believe that respondents have violated Section 5 of the FTC Act. 

She did not say that the noncompetes were fine. In a separate statement regarding one of the matters, she noted that various aspects of noncompetes imposed on security guards (running two years from termination of employment, with $10,000 liquidated damages for breach) had been found unreasonable by a state court, and therefore unenforceable under Michigan law. That seemed to her “reasonable.” I’m no expert on Michigan state law, but those terms seem to me suspect under general standards of reasonability. Whether there was a federal antitrust violation is far less clear.    

One more clue–and even bigger news–came the very next day: the Commission published a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) proposing to ban the use of noncompetes in general. Subject to a limited exception for the sale of a business, noncompetes would be deemed violative of Section 5 across occupations, income levels, and industries. That is, the FTC proposed to regulate the terms of employment agreements for nearly the whole of the U.S. labor force. Step aside federal and state labor law (and the U.S. Labor Department and Congress); and step aside ongoing and active statutory experimentation on noncompete enforcement in the states. 

So many questions. There are reasons to wonder about many noncompetes. They do have the potential to solve holdup problems for firms that might otherwise underinvest in employee training and might undershare trade secrets or other proprietary information. But that’s not much of an explanation for restrictions on a counter person at a sub shop, and I’m pretty suspicious of the liquidated damages provision in the security-guards matter. Credible economic studies raise concerns, as well. 

Still, this is an emerging area of study, and many positive contributions to it (like the one linked just now, and this) illustrate research challenges that remain. An FTC Bureau of Economics working paper (oddly not cited in the 215-page NPRM) reviews the body of literature, observing that results are mixed, and that many of the extant studies have shortcomings. 

For similar reasons, comments submitted to an FTC workshop on noncompetes by the Antitrust Section of the American Bar Association said that cross-state variations in noncompete law “are seemingly justified, as the views and literature on non-compete clauses (and restrictive covenants in employment contracts generally) are mixed.”

So here are a few more questions that cannot possibly be resolved in a single blog post:

  1. Does the FTC have the authority to issue substantive (“legislative”) competition regulations? 
  2. Would a regulation restricting a common contracting practice across all occupations, industries, and income levels raise the major questions doctrine? (Ok, skipping ahead: Yes.)
  3. Does it matter, for the major questions doctrine or otherwise, that there’s a substantial body of federal statutory law regarding labor and employment and a federal agency (a good deal larger than the FTC) charged to enforce the law?
  4. Does it matter that the FTC simply doesn’t have the personnel (or congressionally appropriated budget) to enforce such a sweeping regulation?
    • Is the number of experienced labor lawyers currently employed as staff in the FTC’s Bureau of Competition nonzero? If so, what is it? 
  5. Does it matter that this is an active area of state-level legislation and enforcement?
  6. Do the effects of noncompetes vary as the terms of noncompetes vary, as suggested in the ABA comments linked above? And if so, on what dimensions?
    • Do the effects vary according to the market power of the employer in local (or other geographically relevant) labor markets and, if so, should that matter to an antitrust enforcer?
    • If the effects vary significantly, is a one-size-fits-all regulation the best path forward?
  7. Many published studies seem to report average effects of policy changes on, e.g., wages or worker mobility for some class of workers. Should we know more about the distribution of those effects before the FTC (or anyone else) adopts uniform federal regulations? 
  8. How well do we know the answer to the myriad questions raised by noncompetes? As the FTC working paper observes, many published studies seem to rely heavily on survey evidence on the incidence of noncompetes. Prior to adopting  a sweeping competition regulation, should the FTC use its 6b subpoena authority to gather direct evidence? Why hasn’t it?
  9. The FTC’s Bureau of Economics employs a large expert staff of research economists. Given the questions raised by the FTC Working Paper, how else might the FTC contribute to the state of knowledge of noncompete usage and effects before adopting a sweeping, nationwide prohibition? Are there lacunae in the literature that the FTC could fill? For example, there seem to be very few papers regarding the downstream effects on consumers, which might matter to consumers. And while we’re in labor markets, what about the relationship between noncompetes and employment? 

Well, that’s a lot. In my defense, I’ll  note that the FTC’s November 2022 Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on “commercial surveillance” enumerated 95 complex questions for public comment. Which is more than nine. 

I didn’t even get to the once-again dismal ratings of FTC’s senior agency leadership in the 2022 OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Last year’s results were terrible—a precipitous drop from 2020. This year’s results were worse. Worse yet, they show that last year’s results were not mere transient deflation in morale. But a discussion will have to wait for another blog post.

Daniel Gilman

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Daniel Gilman Daniel Gilman is a Senior Scholar of Competition Policy with the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE). Before joining ICLE, Dan was an Attorney Advisor in the FTC’s Office of Policy Planning, where he worked on competition issues in health care and technology markets and, more broadly, on the competitive impact of regulation, with a focus on privacy regulations, among others.

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