Patent Office Workers Paid to Exercise, Do Laundry, Shop Online

Wednesday, 30 Jul 2014 11:35 AM

By Jennifer G. Hickey

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Paralegals hired by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to handle a backlog of appeals and cases were actually paid more than $5 million to perform no work, according to the Commerce Department's Inspector General.

According to investigators, some employees at the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board were paid for "Other Time," which included performing charity work from home, surfing the Internet, doing laundry, exercising at home and shopping online, the IG reported.

While the managers were aware of the problem in 2009, they remained confident it would "disappear" over time, the report said. In addition, the report cited concerns among some managers that taking disciplinary action or terminating the employees "would create conflict with the union."

It did not.

"The problem grew so bad, the managers created a separate billing code for Paralegal Specialists to charge those non-productive hours – 'Other Time.' One Senior Manager described the Other Time as the 'I don't have to work but I'm going to get paid code,'" the IG said in its report.

Between 2009 and 2013, the paralegals brought home more than $4.3 million in "other time" wages, as well as paralegals received more than $681,000 in bonuses.

In 2008, the PTAB hired 19 paralegals to help cope with an increasing backlog of appeals, but hired only one judge and increased the number of paralegals to 50 in 2009. However, the paralegals were largely dependent upon the judges for their work assignments and left with insufficient workloads and plenty of time on their hands.

Some paralegals were so idle they simply stopped working, did not inform their supervisors and waited for the next assignment.

The inspector general report follows the release of the findings of an investigation into allegations that Deborah Cohn, the commissioner for trademarks, violated federal regulations by applying pressure on employees to hire the boyfriend of a family member.

The Commerce Department's inspector general concluded Cohn violated federal law which "prohibits federal officials from using their public office for an individual’s private gain," and another regulation which prohibits "an employee from giving preferential treatment to any applicant for employment."

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