Report finds few signs of telework abuse at Patent and Trademark Office

It’s not easy for employees to take advantage of the Patent and Trademark Office’s telework program, a nine-month review by outside investigators concluded.

Following allegations that teleworking patent examiners fudged their time-and-attendance, or T&A, records, the agency commissioned the National Academy of Public Administration to review its policies and survey its supervising patent examiners.  Such abuse is neither widespread nor unique to teleworkers, the academy’s 315-page report said.

“There is no evidence that off-site workers are more likely to commit T&A abuse,” it concluded.

It lauds the PTO’s telework program for saving $26 million annually on real estate and commuting costs and helping to recruit and retain employees. Nearly all of the agency’s 13,000 employees are eligible to telework. About 84 percent actually did so in fiscal 2014, according to PTO.  Half of them worked remotely at least four days a week.

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PTO “should be congratulated for being able to employ telework on such a significant scale,” said the panel chairman, former Defense Department official David Chu, in a phone call with reporters.

Yet the program is not without fault. The report lists 30 recommendations that Chu described as “a few minor tweaks that would be useful to make.”

Chief among them was a common complaint from the supervisors surveyed: They said they could not effectively address employees who failed to meet expectations, Chu said.

“They need more tools and more authority in dealing with people, whether they are teleworking or not teleworking. This is not a telework issue, per se,” he said.

PTO has mandated that regular teleworkers log into the agency’s virtual private network and use other technology that indicates to supervisors when they are working. But not all employees have to use it. Supervisors said employees on site, but not sitting near them, should use it too.

“This is a serious oversight for agency-wide communication and collaboration,” the report concluded.

The report also suggested that PTO renegotiate with its labor unions for more flexibility in teleworking agreements. Unlike comparable organizations, the agency cannot quickly adjust agreements when needed.

“For those who are teleworking, supervisors should have the authority to bring them back to headquarters if they feel that their work is not up to the standards  that ought to be met,” Chu said. “Telework is a privilege, not a right.”

The report recommends that PTO require employees to renew telework agreements every two years, rather than letting them stand in perpetuity.

The agency said it was pleased with the report’s findings. In a written statement, PTO Chief Communications Officer Todd Elmer said the report reaffirmed the telework program’s value and the controls that the agency had put in place. He said PTO was carefully studying the recommendations, even though it had taken steps to shore up the telework program following the allegations of abuse.

In 2012, the Commerce Department inspector general received five complaints about time-and-attendance fraud at the PTO. They claimed that teleworkers were submitting incomplete work, falsely claiming overtime and waiting until the end of their rating period to submit most of their work. The allegations led to congressional hearings that tarnished the program that the government had held up as a model for other agencies. Under Congress’ watch, PTO tightened controls over the program while also commissioning the NAPA review.

Since then, there has been a significant uptick in the number of time-and-abuse cases referred to the agency’s employee relations office.  It has received 58 cases in the first three-quarters of fiscal 2015, 12 more than it received in fiscal 2014.  That shows the agency has increased its attention to the problem, the report concluded. At the same time, it points out that those cases represent less than 0.1 percent of all the patent examiners who telework regularly.

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