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Non-Competition Pacts Are Rarely Enforceable

September 13, 1998

Q: My company asked me to sign a contract that would severely harm my future career if I were to leave. I would not be able to work in my profession for several years, and then with strict guidelines. I have repeatedly told them I would not sign. So have other employees. They have sent me a letter saying not getting this back to them will be reflected on the quarterly evaluations. Is this legal?--S.A., Tustin

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A: Society promotes freedom of employment, and under California law, most of these non-competition agreements are unenforceable.

One of the main exceptions involves an agreement signed by someone who sells an interest in a company to the buyer for whom he or she will work. But even these exceptions must be extremely limited in duration and in geographic application.

Companies often avoid the problems related to non-competition agreements by requiring employees to sign "trade secret" agreements. Even though laws restrict the use of trade secrets even without an agreement, employees should be very careful in signing any agreement that restricts their right to future employment in any way.

Retaliation for your refusal to sign the agreement may also be illegal. You certainly can assert your rights not to sign an illegal agreement. As a practical matter, you might want to have a lawyer look at the proposed contract and give you detailed suggestions of how it is illegal and improper. You could then list some of those reasons in an informal, cordial letter that explains your refusal to sign and documents the issue.

--Don D. Sessions

Employee rights attorney

Mission Viejo

Boss Fears Changing Routines

Q: I am the office manager for a college development office. I have experience with other types of businesses. One of my supervisors started here when the operation was very small. As the years passed and the office staff grew, she became manager. Eventually, an executive position was created for her because of her years of service and her dedication. But she is very set in her ways. I'd like to bring the operation up-to-date, but she seems to stifle me at every turn.--C.B., Pasadena

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A: Resistance to any sort of change is a very common problem--one that holds back many work groups and organizations.

You should continue your efforts to innovate and update office operations and to try to convince your supervisor that this is the appropriate course. Let your supervisor know that you have the office's and the college's best interests at heart and that you are trying to work with her, not against her.

You need to be sensitive to when she might be feeling threatened by you.

There are a number of good management books that emphasize the importance of organizational change and development. You might want to bring these to her attention. You also may want to look at some of these books, which offer techniques and strategies to promote positive change in individuals and work groups.

--Ron Riggio, director

Kravis Leadership Institute

Claremont McKenna College

School Employees' Union Dues

Q: I am a classified employee with a school district. My payroll stubs have shown in the past that deductions for union dues have been made from my paycheck from time to time. The deductions are listed on my check stub as "voluntary deductions." One of the personnel employees told me that it is mandatory for everyone in my job category to pay union dues. Was she correct?

--K.H., Los Angeles

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A: Unions are financed by the dues and fees of the employees they represent. To collect dues, unions representing state and local government employees negotiate organizational security arrangements that require represented employees to pay their proportionate share of the costs of the services provided by the labor union.

Under some of these arrangements, failure to pay required dues and fees to the union is grounds for an employee's termination.

Under most organizational security arrangements, dues or fees are deducted from paychecks. Payroll deductions are popular with union members because the employer takes the responsibility to send periodic dues payments to the union. But the law also requires school employees to sign revocable dues-deduction authorizations before dues can be withheld from their paychecks. (Different rules apply to employees in higher education and other government jobs.)

Once signed, dues-deduction authorization cards can ordinarily be revoked only during specified periods.

You should contact your union to verify whether you signed a dues-deduction authorization card when you were hired. You should also find out more about the benefits of union membership.

If you did not sign a dues-deduction card, you can instruct your employer to stop deducting dues from your paycheck. If you signed one, your union can tell you when and how you can revoke your deduction authorization. Keep in mind, however, that you can be fined or fired if you are late in paying dues under some arrangements.

--Joseph L. Paller Jr.

Union, employee attorney

Gilbert & Sackman

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Questions about on-the-job situations may be mailed to Shop Talk, Los Angeles Times, P.O. Box 2008, Costa Mesa, CA 92626; dictated to (714) 966-7873; or e-mailed to shoptalk@latimes.com. Include your initials and hometown. The column is designed to answer questions of general interest. It should not be construed as legal advice.

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