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Non-Compete, Independent Contractor Issues Define State Approach to New Economy

Posted on June 23, 2015

Microsoft Founder Bill Gates once said that “The intersection of law, politics and technology is going to force a lot of good thinking.”

jobsearchcomputer.smallPerhaps, but it is also forcing a lot of muddled thinking as state and federal policymakers struggle to define a rapidly evolving economy with traditional laws and regulations. Associated Industries of Massachusetts will today seek to change some of that thinking on two issues that are critical to the commonwealth’s economic future ” the ability of employers to protect intellectual property with non-compete agreements and the ability of entrepreneurs to work as independent contractors.

AIM plans to provide testimony on the two issues at a hearing of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development. The association opposes efforts to ban or limit the use of non-compete agreements and favors changing the law that prevents virtually any individual in Massachusetts from unambiguously passing the legal test to qualify as an independent contractor.

“The 4,500 member employers of AIM believe that government should encourage the research, innovation and investment that make the Massachusetts economy unique. Maintaining non-competes and broadening the definition of independent contractors will ensure that great ideas continue to generate good jobs here in the commonwealth,” said John Regan, Executive Vice President of Government Affairs.

Massachusetts lawmakers last year rejected efforts by a small group of well-heeled venture capitalists to ban the use of non-compete agreements in the commonwealth. AIM believes the non-compete issue is about choice for both individuals and employers, who should be free to negotiate contracts of mutual benefit as long as the employee is a part of the process.

Employees already enjoy legal protection against overly restrictive non-compete agreements.  Case law dictates that enforcement of agreements occurs only when:

  • they are narrowly tailored to protect legitimate business interests;
  • they are limited in time, geography, and scope;
  • they are consonant with public policy; and
  • the harm to the employer from non-enforcement outweighs the harm to the employee.

“Non-compete agreements may not be used to curtail ordinary, fair competition or to prevent employees from using their general skills. Massachusetts has a long history of case law that strikes the right balance between employee freedom of mobility and financial incentives with employer interests in protecting intellectual property (IP), trade secrets, confidential information, and goodwill,” says Brad MacDougall, Vice President of Government Affairs at AIM.

The association surveyed its members last year and found that non-competes are used widely in every segment of the Massachusetts economy, including manufacturing, life sciences, medical devices, finance, retail, marketing, publishing, construction, energy, professional services, insurance and health care. A manufacturing company with fewer than 50 employees wrote on the survey that eliminating non-competes “could put us out of business.”

The independent contractor issue revolves around an overly restrictive statute that leaves Massachusetts on the sidelines of one of the fastest developing sectors of the economy.

One out of every three American workers, from software engineers and researchers to graphic designers, freelance journalists and nannies, today works independently outside the bounds of traditional 9-to-5 employment. The trend includes the so-called sharing economy that provides apps allowing individuals to exchange goods and services ranging from rides to housecleaning.

But Massachusetts’ share of that job growth is threatened by a state law that imposes a confusing and complex three-factor test to determine whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor.

Employees must currently meet three requirements to be considered an independent contractor:

  1. The individual is free from control and direction in connection with the performance of the service, both under his/her contract for the performance of service and in fact; and
  2. The service is performed outside the usual course of the business of the employer; and,
  3. The individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business of the same nature as that involved in the service performed. 

An advisory from the Massachusetts attorney general in 2004 concluded that “the new law is so broad in its definition of employee that virtually every occupation, individual entrepreneur and every employer, including the public sector, have been affected, putting Massachusetts at odds with every other state in the country.”

Simply replacing the word “and” with “or” after Section 2 would bring Massachusetts into alignment with the 20-factor IRS test for determining employment versus contractor status, and validate normal and accepted employment practices in many sectors of the economy.

It’s a modest change that would help thousands of legitimate Massachusetts independent contractors who choose to manage and operate their own business and earn a living outside a traditional employer-employee relationship.

Both the non-compete and independent contractor issues underscore the fact that Massachusetts must regulate a 21st century economy with 2st century laws.