IG: PTO examiners recorded large number of ‘unsupported’ hours

An inspector general review of the attendance data of thousands of patent examiners revealed potential time and attendance abuse that could translate into millions of dollars of wasted expense.

The Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General initiated the review of Patent and Trademark Office work activities in the wake of another report it issued in August 2015 which detailed extensive time and attendance abuse by a patent examiner at the Patent and Trademark Office. That OIG audit determined that the examiner in question had received $25,500 by falsely claiming to work at least 730 hours in fiscal 2014.

For the new report, released Sept. 1, the OIG analyzed two overlapping periods. The first was a nine-month period, ending Nov. 28, 2015, following PTO’s implementation of a new Policy on Work Schedule Notification, Communication, and Collaboration (Full-Time Teleworker Policy). The second study period—also ending Nov. 28, 2015—consisted of the six months before and the nine months after the policy’s implementation.

For the nine-month period, the OIG reviewed specific work activities of about 8,100 of PTO’s approximately 10,000 patent examiners, and identified 137,622 unsupported hours. For the 15-month period, the OIG analyzed work activities for roughly 8,400 examiners and found 288,479 unsupported hours.

For the 15-month period, the OIG found that:

  • The 288,479 unsupported hours equated to more than $18.3 million in potential waste.
  • Approximately 28.5 percent of the total unsupported time consisted of overtime hours, equating to more than $5.4 million in potential waste.
  • 415 of all examiners covered in the analysis had 10 percent or more unsupported hours and accounted for 43 percent of the total unsupported hours. PTO paid about $7.8 million in bonuses to those 415 examiners.
  • 310 of those 415 examiners received above-average annual performance ratings and accounted for nearly 98,000 unsupported hours.

The OIG also found that PTO policies still limit the agency’s ability to prevent and detect time and attendance abuse. For example, the agency does not require teleworkers to log in to their computers on workdays if they do not telework full-time, and does not require on-campus examiners to use their USPTO-issued ID badges to exit through the access control turnstiles.

Auditors said they “adopted a conservative approach in considering the evidence,” and therefore excluded what it called “a significant amount of unsupported hours” to ensure that the methodology “did not assume unfairly that a particular examiner was not working.” At the same time, the OIG said that total unsupported over those periods could be “twice as high” as reported in the recent investigation.

PTO Chief Communications Officer Patrick Ross issued a statement in response to the report, noting that it wasimportant to recognize and understand that the OIG report did not focus on individual employees; instead, it was based on a comparative analysis of large computer record data sets.”

“The OIG concluded that there was a lack of a digital footprint in approximately 2 percent of the total hours claimed by the patent examiners during the 15-month period,” he stated, “a percentage that continued to shrink following the introduction of new USPTO controls, and during the course of the IG review.”

Ross said the agency “recognizes that there may be many reasons for the lack of a digital footprint and is committed to analyzing the recommendations offered by the OIG …” Ross said the agency would continue to conduct its own review and improve policies where necessary

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Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
Mike Causey Columnist
Tom Fox VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service
Mathew B. Tully Legal Analyst

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