America TonightMon-Fri 9:30pm ET/6:30pm PT

Why is Jimmy John's making low-wage workers sign non-compete agreements?

Once employees leave Jimmy John's, their options for similar employment become very limited

There’s really nothing about the Jimmy John’s B.L.T. that anyone would consider a mystery – that is, unless you’re Jimmy John’s. To them, a simple sandwich is a trade secret to be protected at all costs.

For Emily Brunner and Caitlin Turowski, that mindset has place a virtual lock on their job prospects. The 22-year-old Brunner is an assistant manager at a Jimmy John’s near Chicago. A salaried employee, Brunner says her hourly pay amounts to less than minimum wage. Until recently, Turowski, 25, also worked at a Jimmy John’s near Chicago.

“I wouldn’t be able to work here,” Turowski said, standing inside a local restaurant in the Chicago area. “End of discussion. They have a list of sandwiches.”

What Turowski is talking about is the agreement that all Jimmy John’s workers must sign. For two years, it forbids former employees from working for “any business which delivers more than 10 percent of its revenue” from sandwiches if that business is “within three miles” of a Jimmy John’s store.

For Brunner and Turowski, Jimmy John’s was an entry-level job, and both would like better jobs with bigger paychecks. So, they are suing Jimmy John’s to have its non-competition agreement declared illegal – the first lawsuit of its kind.

“I assumed it was all necessary,” said Brunner, in her first TV interview. “I knew I had to fill out my W-2’s. I had to sign my name on the dotted line. I just needed a job.”

A turkey sandwich at Jimmy John's.

Turowski said she thinks they had to sign non-compete agreements to make sure they didn’t share any trade secrets.

“But how much is really in a trade secret about making a B.L.T.?” she said.

It’s not just Jimmy John’s that’s taken up the practice of non-compete agreements. According to the New York Times, working ranging from hair stylists, to summer-camp workers, to yoga instructors are now being required to sign such agreements. That’s gotten the attention of Congress.

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), along with 36 of her colleagues, recently wrote the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Labor asking them to investigate.

“I just thought it’s ridiculous,” Sanchez told America Tonight. “You’re talking about a person at probably the lowest end of the pay scale. These are not corporate executive that have inside information and trade secrets that could damage a sandwich shop.” She added: “It’s using fear and intimidation to just try to control what employee choices are. I can’t fathom a world in which that is legal.”

More from America Tonight

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter