Keith Bollinger’s paycheck as a factory manager had shriveled after the 2008 financial crisis, but then he got a chance to pull himself out of recession’s hole. A rival textile company offered him a better job — and a big raise.
When he said yes, it set off a three-year legal battle that concluded this past week but wiped out his savings along the way.
“I tried to get a better life for my wife and my son, and it backfired,” said Mr. Bollinger, who is 53. “Now I’m in my mid-50s, and I’m ruined.”
Mr. Bollinger had signed a noncompete agreement, designed to prevent him from leaving his previous employer for a competitor. These contracts have long been routine among senior executives. But they are rapidly spreading to employees like Mr. Bollinger, who do the kind of blue-collar work that President Trump has promised to create more of.
“I tried to get a better life for my wife and my son, and it backfired.”
— Keith Bollinger, a factory manager in Conover, N.C.
The growth of noncompete agreements is part of a broad shift in which companies assert ownership over work experience as well as work. A recent survey by economists including Evan Starr, a management professor at the University of Maryland, showed that about one in five employees was bound by a noncompete clause in 2014.
Employment lawyers say their use has exploded. Russell Beck, a partner at the Boston law firm Beck Reed Riden who does an annual survey of noncompete litigation, said the most recent data showed that noncompete and trade-secret lawsuits had roughly tripled since 2000.
“Companies of all sorts use them for people at all levels,” he said. “That’s a change.”
Employment lawyers know this, but workers are often astonished to learn that they’ve signed away their right to leave for a competitor. Timothy Gonzalez, an hourly laborer who shoveled dirt for a fast-food-level wage, was sued after leaving one environmental drilling company for another. Phillip Barone, a midlevel salesman and Air Force veteran, was let go from his job after his old company sent a cease-and-desist letter saying he had signed a noncompete.
Then there is Mr. Bollinger, whose long-running legal battle is full of twists and turns that include clandestine photography, a private investigator, a mysterious phone call and courthouse victories later undone by losses in appeals court.
“This is the strangest noncompete case I have ever been involved with, or even heard of,” said Michael P. Thomas, Mr. Bollinger’s lawyer and a partner at Patrick, Harper & Dixon in Hickory, N.C.
Alan B. Krueger, a Princeton economics professor who was chairman of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, recently described noncompetes and other restrictive employment contracts — along with outright collusion — as part of a “rigged” labor market in which employers “act to prevent the forces of competition.”
By giving companies huge power to dictate where and…