For Laura Houlding, an aspiring veterinarian, working at a dog daycare was the perfect job while she was taking college classes. But after she was fired from Pampered Pooch Playground in St. Louis Park last fall, Houlding learned that her work with animals would be severely restricted for two years by a noncompete agreement she signed.
The agreement prohibits Houlding, 19, from working for another business that boards, grooms or trains dogs within 15 miles of Pampered Pooch. When her previous employer found out she got a job at a dog daycare in St. Paul, Pampered Pooch contacted the company and she lost the job.
"If I couldn't work with dogs, I don't know what I would do," Houlding said. "I can't work at a lot of the places I love."
More employees like Houlding -- lower-paid members of a service industry -- are being asked to sign noncompete agreements, employment attorney Marshall Tanick said. Noncompetes are typically seen in industries such as sales, insurance, medical products or salons, Tanick said.
In Minnesota, the courts have varied in how they rule on enforcing noncompete agreements, Tanick said, but judges look at whether the restrictions on time and distance are reasonable.
"A judge won't enforce these unless there's a real basis to do this, not just because someone signed it," Tanick said. "The employer has to show there really is a legitimate need to protect confidential data."
Keith Miller, the co-owner of Pampered Pooch Playground, did not return calls for comment. In a letter to Houlding last fall, he wrote that he sent a letter to her new employer because she was in violation of the noncompete agreement.
"If you continue to breach this agreement Pampered Pooch Playground will be forced to refer this matter to our attorney and seek monetary damages and a court order to prevent further damages to us," Miller wrote.
By comparison, a one-year noncompete agreement is suggested for salon workers by the Professional Beauty Association, a national trade association for thousands of salons, stylists and other beauty professionals.
Not sure where she can work
Houlding said she had been working at Pampered Pooch for about a month when she and the other employees were told they had to sign a two-year noncompete agreement or lose their jobs. In exchange for signing the agreement, Houlding said she was given a 10-cent raise, bringing her hourly wage to $8.10.
In Minnesota, employees are generally supposed to get something in return for signing a noncompete agreement if they're already working for the company, Tanick said.
Houlding said she was fired a couple months later after she missed a couple of days of work to get her wisdom teeth removed.
She landed a new job in a couple of weeks. She didn't think the noncompete agreement would be an issue because the businesses were 12 miles apart. But during her training at the St. Paul shop, she said her new boss told her they had to fire her because her former boss insisted on enforcing the agreement. Houlding said she was confused about where she was allowed to work or whether she was even allowed to do volunteer work for animals.
While the agreement prohibits her from assisting any competitive business, even as a "non-employee participant," it also states that the contract is not intended to prevent her "from being employed by any competitive business; earning a living; or fostering my career."
In the agreement, Pampered Pooch said it was protecting itself by preventing former workers from starting a competing business or helping a competitor gain an unfair advantage by using "proprietary information."
"The fact that they would fire me and then try and prohibit me from working seems ridiculous,'' Houlding said. "If they didn't want me employed with them, then why do they care where I work?"
Houlding has applied at several other dog daycares around the metro and discovered that they also require noncompete agreements. She said that she isn't opposed to signing one again but that the terms would have to be reasonable. She's still weighing her options for challenging the noncompete agreement with Pampered Pooch.
Houlding also isn't sure whether she can work at a pet store or a veterinary clinic, because many of them offer boarding or grooming. For now, she's volunteering with an animal-rescue organization and recently got a job walking dogs a couple of hours a week for Metro Pets & More.
Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628