Vt. lawmakers consider scaling back 'noncompete' labor agreements

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) A bill moving through the Vermont Statehouse could seeks to scale back noncompete agreements in employment contracts.

When some employees sign a contract for a new job in some competitive industries, including the TV business, employers often include a noncompete agreement that if the employee leaves the job, they're not allowed to take a position at a competitor, where they could share inside secrets.

That was the case of Ally Vitale, who works in the outdoor tourism industry. Last year she worked for Sojurn Bicycling & Active Vacations, a Shelburne-based tour company. She left the job after being denied health insurance and started a new job in the industry. Sojurn served her with a cease and desist order, saying she violated the "noncompete" agreement in her contract.

"I wasn't aware that I was in breach of the noncompete because I never received a copy of the contract stating that," Vitale said.

She says she unknowingly signed the document on her first day, which states she isn't allowed to work for any of Sojurn's competitors anywhere for a year.

But Sojurn officials say she had direct access to the company's trade secrets and protected customer lists and that the noncompete agreement is designed to protect the company and its employees.

Though Vitale has a new job now, she says she lives in fear of being sued or fired. "I'm probably a little over $5,000 in debt in legal fees to defend myself. It was an emotional time going through the holidays not knowing if I was going to be sued or I would lose my job," she said.

Vitale is now taking her story to the Statehouse so others won't have to go through her ordeal.

Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, is one of the sponsors of a bill that scales back noncompetes. She says the agreement should only be used under specific circumstances. "For folks who really have the financial resources to be able to bear not working in their field or in their geography for a period of time after they leave their work, and that people are going into these agreements knowing fully aware of what they're going into," she said.

It's unclear how many Vermonters are in non-competes, but Kornheiser says their professions range from hairstylists to health care to tech. In the past five years, 12 states have changed the laws surrounding noncompetes.

In a statement, Sojourn officials say they're confident they'll prevail during the litigation.