Dozens of employees working for an obscure federal agency went years with little work to do, allowing them to collect salaries and bonuses while they shopped online, caught up on chores, watched television or walked the dog, an investigation revealed Tuesday.
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.
“I almost don’t blame [paralegals] for watching TV because, I mean, you’re sitting around for 800 hours,” one chief judge told the investigators, who found that supervisors not only tolerated the problem but in one instance admonished an employee who complained about the lack of work.
The idle paralegals nonetheless managed to take home more than a half-million dollars in performance bonuses from 2009 to 2013, before the agency hired enough judges to increase the workload, according to the report.
The underworked paralegals and supervisors concealed non-work activities by recording hours under the pay code as “other time.”
One official told investigators it was an open secret that “other time” was code for “I don’t have to work, but I’m going to get paid.”
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.
Todd Elmer, chief communications officer for the Patent and Trademark Office, said the agency is reviewing the report and plans to issue a formal response within 60 days.
“Many of the OIG’s recommendations for improvements at the PTAB are already underway or have been implemented,” Mr. Elmer said in an email statement.
He said the agency conducted its own study after it was informed of the problem.
Asked why they had logged so much “other time,” paralegals and their supervisors blamed a lack of work. One paralegal told a supervisor that she didn’t have any work, but the supervisor didn’t seem bothered.
“There is not much work and I know there is not much work, and you can stop calling me every day and telling me you have nothing to do because I know you have nothing to do,” the paralegal recalled being told.
Still, the paralegals received such high performance ratings that supervisors doled out generous bonuses.
One senior manager recalled a meeting in which managers stated “although we’re not obligated to provide bonuses, we’re still going to.”
The review released Tuesday also found that some managers were fearful of antagonizing labor union officials, so efforts to assign “special projects” to the paralegals were “feeble, half-hearted and ineffective.”
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.
“In the worst cases, paralegals seemed content to have idle time while collecting full salaries and benefits … while management seemed to sit on their hands, anticipating the arrival of judges at some unknown date in the figure,” the report concluded.
Managers interviewed by the investigators didn’t seem surprised that paralegals weren’t doing much work. One said he wouldn’t have been “a bit surprised if there were people who were going out to the golf course.”