July 30 2014

Don’t Patent This

Patrice J. Lee

Staples. Apple. McDonald’s. Microsoft. Ralph Lauren. These are all companies with trusted brands and valued products or ideas that are protected by law. The federal agency that granted trademarks on their names and patents on their products is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

You might expect this agency to be just as productive as the companies they work with. Based on new reports of behavior by PTO workers, you’d be wrong.

A Commerce Department probe uncovered dozens of agency workers wasting time and taxpayer money on their own endeavors. Apparently, with little work to do they used work time as fun time to run personal errands all while collected full time salaries.

The paralegals shopped online, walked their dogs, watched television, and did chores.

The Washington Times reports:

The probe by the Commerce Department’s inspector general found that paralegals at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s appeals board were paid more than $5 million for their time even though there was so little work for them to do that supervisors didn’t care how they used it.

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The underworked paralegals and supervisors concealed non-work activities by recording hours under the pay code as “other time.”

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Investigators said the practice continued until last year when agency officials got word that the inspector general's office was looking into complaints from whistleblowers.

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From 2009 through 2013, the agency spent more than $4.3 million overall to reimburse “other time,” and many of those paralegals took home nearly $700,000 in bonuses.

Nice to know that our hard earned dollars are going to good use.

While the behavior by the paralegals was bad, even more egregious was the response from managers. They permitted the abuse of work time and shrugged their shoulders when workers complained of their empty workloads.

Private sector workers with nothing to do find new projects to work on otherwise find themselves looking for a new job. In the public sector, it appears you find yourself with bonus and a lot of paid free time.

This agency is far from the only one. The Washington Times identified two dozen federal agencies, offices, departments, and organizations that rang up a whopping $73 billion in fiscal waste.

The question is what can and should be done to ensure that this does reoccur or to stop it from happening in other agencies? The funding source for these agencies is a starting place. What if we tied funding to employee productivity and reduced levels of funding when the level of work is reduced?

This isn't popular, but neither is watching our hard-earned tax dollars being wasted on personal activities by underutilized workers.

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