Union trademark: Federal teleworkers bilk taxpayers


WHO’S WORKING? U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, wants answers to reports of widespread “telework” abuses at the Patent and Trademark Office.

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The federal office that stripped the Washington Redskins’ trademark has lost control of its “teleworkers,” who game the system to bilk taxpayers.

The Washington Post reported that “generous agreements” with three unions at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office have undermined the agency’s productivity and credibility.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform heard testimony exposing abuses of the program that enables employees to work from remote locations.

ANYONE THERE? The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va.

Used by 5,000 USPTO staffers, the agency’s system lacks accountability, according to the Commerce Department’s Inspector General.

Todd Zinser said his office’s findings suggest “time and attendance abuse is tolerated at USPTO.”

“Supervisors are not provided sufficient tools for ensuring that their employees are actually working the hours claimed,” Zinser testified.

Further, USPTO senior management has essentially prohibited supervisors and employee relations personnel from obtaining building and computer records to follow up on employees suspected of misrepresenting time worked on their timesheets.”

As a result, Zinser said USPTO examiners can earn pay for time they didn’t work and receive performance bonuses they didn’t deserve. He didn’t provide figures or dollar amounts.

Margaret Focarino, commissioner for patents at USPTO, defended the telework program, saying it has “allowed us to more than double the number of patent examiners since 2005 without significantly increasing our real estate footprint.” She said the off-site work initiative saved more than $34 million rent.

But critics questioned Focarino’s assertion that management was in fact “taking many important and necessary steps to strengthen our telework program and improve controls.”

The Post earlier reported that union rules continue to cover up abuse by teleworkers at taxpayer expense.

“Managers are prohibited, for example, from requiring employees they supervise to put a device on their computers that shows when they are working, a tool unions call an invasion of privacy,” the Post reported Monday.

“Examiners who work from home, the majority of the workforce, have 24 hours to respond to a telephone call from their boss. There is no requirement that examiners tell their supervisors when they plan to work, as long as the work gets done,” the Post noted.

The Inspector General found that work quality suffered when procrastinating teleworkers rushed projects through. Zinser accused top USPTO management of concealing a 32-page report that detailed telework problems.

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., raised concerns about USPTO’s telework program last August. Since then, he has called for a criminal investigation.

“Employees have been gaming time and attendance through the system. Failure to act could put (similar) programs across the federal government in jeopardy,” the retiring congressman said.

Last summer, USPTO made news when it revoked Washington’s NFL team “Redskins” trademark. The unusual action was taken without a single complaint to the agency.

Kenric Ward is a national correspondent for Watchdog.org and chief of its Virginia Bureau. Contact him at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward