Patent Office commissions review of telework abuse

The Patent and Trademark Office has commissioned an outside review of its vaunted telework and hoteling programs following allegations that employees padded their timecards. An internal audit revealed numerous complaints by managers who said they lacked sufficient tools to monitor employees working outside the office.

The National Academy of Public Administration, a nonpartisan group chartered by Congress, will evaluate the Patent Office’s internal controls against time and attendance fraud. It also will look at whether the telework programs are helping the agency fulfill its mission. NAPA plans to release a final report by the end of May.

Patent Commissioner Peggy Focarino announced the study Tuesday at a joint hearing of the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees. But she also sought to decouple the accusations of timecard abuse from the agency’s telework programs.

A July 2013 report identified five patent examiners who claimed they worked more hours than they actually did. Only two of them had teleworked, she said.

Focarino characterized the abuse as “isolated” cases. The agency disciplined four of the employees with actions ranging from firing to a letter of counseling. The fifth employee was never identified, she said.

Overall, the agency sees about 70 time-and-attendance cases a year. Most of them concern employees working at headquarters or one of the agency’s satellite offices, said Todd Zinser, inspector general of the Commerce Department. But he cautioned that the numbers do not tell the whole story.

“Most if not all are employees who work on campus, not teleworkers, because of the difficulty of gathering evidence,” he testified.

Nearly half of the first-line supervisors interviewed for the agency’s own investigation said they could not adequately supervise teleworking employees because they lacked the tools and support from management. They said executives seemed not to care whether someone worked full shifts as long as they got the work done. They also said they had problems accessing records that would prove whether someone was working.

“There is a cultural issue. Somehow the signal has come down from the senior levels that they do not want to pursue time and attendance abuse to the point where they’re going to seek additional records and data to make those cases,” said Zinser.

Focarino disagreed.

“Any single case of misconduct is unacceptable to us and when they come to our attention, we take action,” she said.

The agency had a “historic” year in fiscal 2014, she said. It examined a record 600,000 patent applications and issued about 300,000 patents. Neither achievement would have been possible if there was a widespread problem with examiners not doing their jobs, she said.

The issue is critical for an agency that credits much of its success to its flexible work policies. About 5,000 employees, many of them patent examiners, telework full time. Focarino said the telework programs have helped PTO ramp up its workforce as it tackles a backlog of patent applications that once stood at 750,000. She estimated the agency had saved more than $34 million in rent. Other agencies have studied the programs as they developed their own. About 36 percent of federal employees telework at least occassionally, according to the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Holes in the PTO’s programs threaten to undermine governmentwide efforts to increase flexibility, lawmakers said.

“I firmly believe if PTO and the Commerce Department fail to terminate employees who abused the system, other telework programs across the federal government could very well be in jeopardy,” said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a staunch supporter of telework who also testified before the committees.

He called the NAPA study “a very, very positive first step” and urged Focarino to report the findings to the House committees so they can make sure the recommendations are carried out.

The Patent Office began taking steps to address timecard fraud soon after receiving the first anonymous complaints in 2012, she said. It has implemented 13 of the 15 recommendations stemming from its internal audits. Those include a new agreement with its unions to require full-time teleworkers use electronic collaboration tools so that supervisors can check up on them.

The agency is reviewing all of its policies on misconduct and discipline, she said. A pilot program aims to stamp out the practice of “endloading,” in which procrastinating patent examiners wait until the end of the fiscal quarter to complete a significant portion of their work, possibly resulting in shoddy work.

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