Gehrke: LDS Church-owned media and some Utah companies are suffocating workers with noncompete clauses

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke

If you haven’t seen Donovan Mitchell go off for 40 points and a dozen rebounds this season, you’re missing out.

Wouldn’t it be incredible if the Jazz could find a way to keep his talents in Utah and not have to worry about losing “Spider” the way they lost Gordon Hayward? Maybe by coercing him into signing a contract that would force him to sit out a season if he decided he wants to leave?

But that’s not how it works, and it’s not how it should work, because basic fairness demands that Mitchell and Hayward should be able to find the best team and best salary and best situation for them. So LeBron James can take his skills to South Beach or back to Cleveland or wherever when his contract is up.

The same concept should apply to workers in other fields, but to often it doesn’t. That’s because, in Utah and several dozen other states, employees can be tied down by noncompete clauses attached to their contracts that make it impossible from a practical standpoint for them to move to another job.

Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, has been trying for the past few years to get rid of noncompete clauses and essentially ran into a wood chipper each time.

This year, he has narrowed his focus, seeking to eliminate noncompete clauses for broadcast media outlets that, for years, have been tying up top talent by keeping journalists from jumping to a competing station in the same market for a year or more.

Not surprisingly, the media companies have launched a withering assault, trying to beat back Schultz’s bill to preserve an unfair system that lets them line their pockets by exploiting workers because they make it impossible for them to take their skills to a competitor.

I’ve been at The Salt Lake Tribune for more than a decade and I’ve never had a noncompete restriction, nor does anyone else at the paper or any other print news media of which I am aware. I’ve had opportunities to leave, but haven’t — not because there is a contractual club hanging over my head, but because The Tribune has treated me well, and I love my job.

Ideally, that’s how it should work. A job should be mutually beneficial — an employer benefits from the employee’s talents, and the employee benefits with a paycheck and career advancement.

When that breaks down, there is another fundamental principle that also works both ways: If bosses don’t like my work, get rid of me. The flip side should be equally true. If I don’t like how bosses treat me, then I should be able to walk out the door and take my talent and skills anywhere.

If a TV reporter is forced to sit on the sidelines for six months or a year by a noncompete clause, then the ability to bolt disappears. The journalist might as well be chained to a radiator in the newsroom, because that reporter has a family to feed and a mortgage to pay.

I have had more than a few friends and colleagues, great reporters who provided a tremendous service to their viewers, who had to walk away from the business because they had bills to pay and their noncompete clauses made it impossible for them to do the work they love.

And all of us — the reporter, the station and their viewers — are worse for it.

It has been galling to see these broadcast executives using their titles, their positions and, in several glaring instances, their publications and broadcasts to fight to keep their employees in perpetual serfdom.

None has been more glaring than LDS Church-owned Deseret Media Corp. Its newspaper, the Deseret News, has written editorials blasting Schultz’s bill. This week Deseret Media’s president, Keith McMullin, a former general authority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “invited” legislators to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building twice this week to lobby against HB241, suggesting, not too subtly perhaps, that Utah’s predominant faith opposes the legislation.

Schultz’s bill is not perfect. The biggest flaw is that it is far too narrow, because all of these arguments about an individual’s freedom to work and the benefits to the economy apply to every other industry. So should the bill. Noncompete clauses are bad across the board.

If an employer wants to park an employee on the sidelines for six months, at a minimum the employer should pay the salary and benefits for the employee not to work.

Otherwise, all of us — regardless of what industry we work in — should have the freedom to achieve the best career and life our talents allow.