Share story

Back in the spring, Benny Almeida was unemployed for a spell. So he took the first job offer that came his way — $15 an hour to work as a water-damage cleanup helper in Bellevue.

“At that point what savings I had was gone,” the 26-year-old says.

But three months into his work for ServiceMaster of Seattle, Almeida got a better offer. A rival firm he had also applied to called to say it now had a job opening — paying $18 an hour.

“Who wouldn’t take that?” Almeida told me Tuesday, from a job drying out water-damaged cabinets in Lake Stevens. “Everybody wants to move up, to better themselves. Why not me?”

Sounds like your typical American free-enterprise story. Except Almeida either forgot or didn’t understand that he was part of the latest corporate fad in squeezing blue-collar workers: noncompete clauses even for low-wage jobs.

To get the $15-an-hour job last spring, Almeida was required to sign a “restriction on competition” clause that said if he leaves, he can’t work for two years for any firm doing similar work in ServiceMaster’s “geographic area” — which the company’s lawyer told me means King, Snohomish, Island, Yakima and Kittitas counties.

ServiceMaster of Seattle, a franchise in a $3.4 billion national corporation, now is trying to force Almeida to forfeit his $18-an-hour job at Superior Cleaning of Woodinville.

The noncompete clause would mean Almeida also couldn’t work in any water- or fire-damage job, janitorial, office cleaning, window washing, floor or carpet cleaning or other job ServiceMaster does.

“ServiceMaster of Seattle hereby demands that you immediately cease all employ with Superior Cleaning,” reads a “notice of violation” letter the company’s law firm wrote to Almeida (who lives with his aunt in Lynnwood).

“Failure to do so will require (ServiceMaster) to initiate a legal action against you to obtain a court order enjoining you from working for one of (ServiceMaster’s) direct competitors.”

When I got the lawyer who wrote that on the phone, my question was admittedly not very nuanced: “Seriously? You’re going after a $15-an-hour worker over a noncompete clause?”

Brian Boice said employment contracts that restrict workers are common and the issue at this pay grade is training. The company spends “a lot of money and effort on training inexperienced workers, and we don’t want to end up training them for our competitors.” He accused Superior of chronic poaching of ServiceMaster’s workers, Almeida included.

Almeida says in his three months at ServiceMaster he did not get any training. He agrees he signed the noncompete clause, but says he thought it would apply to managers who are high enough to have client lists. Or to people who leave to start competing businesses.

“I’m a helper,” he says. “I come to work and get my orders and follow them. I figured I was way too far down the ladder to matter.”

Lately there is no rung too low. The New York Times reported last summer that a camp counselor and a hair stylist lost jobs due to noncompete clauses. Last month news hit that some Jimmy John’s sandwich outlets used noncompete contracts to stop sandwich makers from defecting to any business “selling submarine, hero-type, deli-style, pita and/or wrapped or rolled sandwiches and which is located within three miles of … any such Jimmy John’s Sandwich Shop.”

It’s hard to conjure what intellectual property or trade secrets are at stake in making the Turkey Tom. Or in wet-vaccing carpets. It’s one thing to make engineers or lawyers sign noncompetes. But cleaners?

“I think this is just taking advantage of blue-collar workers,” said Larry Weinberg, the CEO of Superior Cleaning, who currently employs Almeida. “It’s like we’re going back to the feudal societies of the 12th century, where the vassals are indentured to their corporate lords. We’re still in America, right?”

We are, and one thing about corporate America is it loves capitalism and free markets — for itself. When it’s the 15-buck-an-hour worker going all free enterprise, though, that’s just too much competition for the system to bear.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or