Is Jimmy John’s Bullying Workers With Non-Compete Agreements?

Is Jimmy John’s Bullying Workers With Non-Compete Agreements?

According to legend, it happened because he didn’t want to leave the gaming table. Maybe he was riding a hot streak.

Whatever the reason, he couldn’t be bothered with going to eat, so he told his servants to bring him a piece of meat between two slices of bread instead. Thus was gastronomic history casually made by John Montagu, an 18th-century British statesman and the 4th Earl of Sandwich.

In the centuries since Montagu inadvertently invented it, the sandwich has made many strides. Peanut butter came along in 1890, sliced bread in 1930. Dagwood Bumstead, who first conceived of the sandwich as a high-rise structure, was born that same year.

But Jimmy John’s, a sandwich maker with 2,000 outlets in 43 states and the District of Columbia, has come up with the greatest advance in sandwich tech since Montagu himself. It must have. Why else would it require its frontline workers to sign non-compete agreements as a condition of employment?

That’s the kind of contract typically required of the high-ranking executive whose annual compensation could retire the debt of a developing nation. It’s not something one would expect to be required of a kid working after school or a downsized mother trying to keep the lights on, making and delivering sandwiches for the somewhat more modest wages for which fast-food jobs are famous.

As reported by the Huffington Post, the contract says that for two years after leaving Jimmy John’s, the employee “will not have any direct or indirect interest in or perform services for any business which derives more than 10 percent of its revenue from selling submarine, hero-type, deli-style, pita and/or wrapped or rolled sandwiches” and which is located within three miles of any Jimmy John’s.

On the face of it, it seems the kind of callous, arrogant, mean-spirited corporate mistreatment of low-wage workers that low-wage workers complain about all the time. But we know low-wage workers are not to be trusted, right? If they were trustworthy, wouldn’t they be making more money? That’s just logic. Don’t you watch Fox? Besides, corporations are people, my friend — a great man once said that — and decent people don’t treat other people that way, so what looks like petty bullying of vulnerable workers must actually be an attempt to protect some new sandwich innovation those workers are privy to.

I’m thinking: crumbless bread. Or a new kind of relish that promotes weight loss. Or maybe they’re about to unveil a creative menu where customers are no longer stuck with the same dull options they have at Subway. Maybe chunky penguin salad on rye?

Senator Al Franken (D-MN) is not persuaded by that logic. He’s co-sponsored a bill to end the practice of requiring low-wage workers to sign these agreements. I called his office for comment and received a written statement decrying what Franken called an “unfair practice” which erects “hurdles and barriers” and robs low-wage workers of mobility.

I knew he had to be mistaken, so I contacted Jimmy John’s to hear how this policy is actually needed to protect corporate secrets. A person who declined to be identified by name wrote that the company does not “currently” require its workers to sign non-compete agreements.

Obviously, that was a typo. Obviously, what the person meant is that Jimmy John’s “does not, never has and never would” do such a thing, unless, of course, it was necessary to protect privileged information. Otherwise, it’s just petty tyranny and as we all know, no American corporation would behave like that.

I emailed Jimmy John’s for clarification. I’m still waiting, but I’m sure they’ll get back to me any minute.

Meantime, who’s up for lunch? Dibs on the penguin salad.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

Photo: Nate Grigg via Flickr

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