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Noncompete clauses could soon be gone under a new federal ban

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The clock is ticking on noncompetes. Soon, those agreements that limit where workers can go after they quit a job could be gone under a new federal ban, but lawsuits may get in the way. That has got some workers on edge as they wait to see what happens. NPR Andrea Hsu has more.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Thomas Anthony Jones didn't fully understand what he was signing when he took a job as a host for the shopping network, QVC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS ANTHONY JONES: Fam (ph), I'm Thomas Anthony Jones, but you can call me TJ.

HSU: The actor jumped at the opportunity last year when Hollywood was on strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: Can we talk about what's happening in this first hour for home decor solutions? Let's do it.

HSU: The work at QVC is unscripted, so it wasn't affected by the strike. And Jones says it was still a chance to be on TV, even though it meant moving from Los Angeles to Westchester, Penn., where QVC's studios are.

JONES: I really felt blessed to be working. None of my friends were.

HSU: When he got a contract with a noncompete clause, he did what so many others do in that position.

JONES: We signed it, but nothing was ever spelled out.

HSU: In plain language, anyway - his agents did warn him that he wouldn't be able to work for other shopping channels. He thought, fair enough. What he did not realize was that he was also signing away his right to work for any company that sells products on QVC for one year.

JONES: QVC sells hundreds of thousands of products with different brands, and that means I can't have contact with any of those brands. That is problematic for me.

HSU: Especially when it comes to one brand he really loved promoting on QVC...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: And this is the Skechers men's GO WALK 6.

HSU: ...Skechers - you know, the shoe company.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: That sale price is $76.98.

HSU: He'd started thinking, wouldn't it be fun to be a brand ambassador for Skechers? It fit with his love of sports. And besides, he was growing unhappy at QVC. The money wasn't what he'd thought it would be, and his path to advancement seemed too slow. Problem with the Skechers idea - that noncompete in his contract. He decided to quit anyway.

JONES: It really just came down to, what's my worth? If they don't value me, I have to.

HSU: Now, like so many others in his position, he regrets having signed the noncompete.

JONES: It's the abusive relationship that you can't get away from. Hey, no one's going to want you. You're ugly. You're dumb. Just stay with me, stay with me, stay with me. I think that's a harsh way of saying it, but those noncompetes make me feel like that.

HSU: Some states, including California, share his view and have banned noncompetes. But Pennsylvania, where QVC is, is not one of them. QVC did not respond to our request for comment, but Jones assumes the company would try to enforce what's in his contract.

Are you afraid that, like, if you went to go work for Skechers, they would sue you?

JONES: Absolutely.

HSU: So he is really hoping the federal ban on noncompetes goes into effect as scheduled on September 4. But already, there are lawsuits seeking to overturn the rule. A tax services firm in Dallas has argued their intellectual property and investments and their workers are at risk. The firm has asked a federal judge for a stay, so that September 4 date may not be real. Emily Poler is an attorney who's dealt with noncompete issues. She says, it's hard to know how this is going to play out.

EMILY POLER: A good analogy is, like, shaking an eight ball, and it turns up the side that says the future is cloudy. I think we're in a little bit of that kind of holding pattern for right now.

HSU: But Thomas Anthony Jones doesn't want to be in a holding pattern. He's starting to explore new opportunities, even some that may conflict with his noncompete.

JONES: In my world, it doesn't benefit you to say, I'll wait, so I want to try now. I can live with yes, and I can live with no, but I at least have to try.

HSU: And see what happens.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.