How Training Repayment Agreements Trap Employees in Their Jobs

“I told myself mentally that I could never work for anybody that made me hate what I did,” she said.

In February, SpecialtyCare sued Ms. Birch for $30,000 to recoup training costs. According to a complaint filed against SpecialtyCare by former employees, the company’s T.R.A. included a stipulation saying the amount of money owed increased after the training was complete, up to a certain point. If Ms. Birch had left SpecialtyCare after six months, she would have owed $15,000. If she had left after a year, when she finished her training, she’d owe $20,000. The number kept growing — to $25,000, then $30,000 — as she stayed at the company longer. Ms. Birch’s T.R.A. ended after three years, and she quit between the two- and three-year mark.

The lawsuit is ongoing. SpecialtyCare did not respond to requests for comment.

In some cases, on-the-job training covered by a training repayment agreement does result in a certification or provide employees with skills that are transferable to another job. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers can’t require employees to bear expenses that are primarily for the benefit of the employers. It is legal, for example, for a management consulting firm to pay for an employee to complete an M.B.A. degree and require the worker to return to the company upon graduation: The employee can take the degree along when leaving, and it can help find more work.

Rachel Dempsey, a lawyer for Towards Justice, a nonprofit law firm, said that was different from a practice at PetSmart, which she said had tried to recoup training costs from employees at its in-house grooming academy. No state requires pet spa technicians to obtain licenses. Ms. Dempsey’s firm sued PetSmart last year.

“I feel like we have caught the problem, and we’re in a moment where we can fix it, and I hope we can take those next steps,” Mr. Hicks, the policy adviser, said. “But it will take multiple arms of the federal government and state governments cracking down on these problems, and it’s going to take coordination between all of the above.”