Just as the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is shrugging off reports that its paralegals are being paid to sit around and do nothing, the agency is facing another potential labor and employment black eye, this time concerning its patent examiners who work from home.
The USPTO has had a work-from-home program in place for years, and it has been lauded by many other government agencies. About half of the office’s patent examiners work from home on a full or part-time basis, but as to how much work they actually do, well, that is a matter of controversy.
About two years ago, a whistleblower complained that many of these examiners were abusing their privileges and lying about the amount of work they were doing. In response to the allegations, the USPTO launched an extensive investigation and it issued a report on its findings – or, rather, two reports.
The latest controversy about the USPTO’s findings has to do with the two different versions of the report that are circulating. The USPTO sent a version of the report to Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser. This report concluded that it was impossible to know if the whistleblower’s allegations were true. But then Zinser got his hands on the original, unfiltered report.
The initial allegations stated that not only were examiners lying about their work hours, but their supervisors were stonewalled by agency officials, making it difficult to discipline their lackluster performance. The laziness of these bad apples might help explain why the USPTO has made little headway in getting through a five-year backlog of patent applications.
The Washington Post got a hold of both versions of the report and found some significant differences between the two. According to the Post, the original report “described a culture of fraud that is overlooked by senior leaders, lax enforcement of the rules and the resulting frustration of many front-line supervisors.” Contrast this to the cleaned-up version of the report, which states that managers who were interviewed had inconsistent views on the aberrant behavior.
The USPTO maintains that the report provided to Zinser is a more accurate version of investigation, while the initial report contained conclusions that were unsupported by the facts.