For years federal auditors have called attention to the government’s widespread problem of employees abusing their work from home privileges, known as telework.
Though agencies have insisted they’ll improve their oversight of employees, the issue remains prevalent.
At a committee hearing this week, the Commerce Department’s Inspector General Todd Zinser described a problem plagued telework program at the Patent and Trademark Office, where thousands of employees have been allowed to work from home with almost no supervision.
Zinser said senior managers have no control over whether employees are actually working the hours they’re claiming on their time cards.
The agency allows about half its workers – or 4,000 employees – to work full-time from their homes. The practice saves the government about $34 million a year in office space leases, the agency says – though there’s the potential for tremendous waste if workers aren’t actually producing anything.
An earlier report revealed that at least 19 paralegals at the Patent and Trademark Office were paid $60,000 to $80,000 a year to visit Facebook, online shop and watch TV – costing taxpayers about $5.1 million over the last four years.
That same report suggested agency managers looked the other way while this occurred and allowed employees to bill the hours under “other time” while those same employees collected thousands in performance bonuses.
At the time, Colleen M. Kelley of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) defended the workers, saying they didn’t have enough work to do – which is why they were surfing the web. “These frontline employees wanted to work. They let managers know that and ultimately some of them went to the Inspector General about the lack of work, which instigated this report,” Kelley said in a statement.
Yet lawmakers aren’t buying it.
“To say I am extremely disappointed that the patent office failed to manage its telework program would be an understatement,” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) said during the hearing. He and other lawmakers have pressed federal prosecutors to open a probe into alleged fraudulent recordkeeping by the agency, The Associated Press noted.
He went on to say that if the agency doesn’t exercise better oversight over its program, other federal telework programs could be jeopardized.
Other agencies have also struggled with oversight issues. Earlier this year, a Federal Communications Commission worker was busted for spending a significant portion of his workweek watching porn because, as he said, he didn’t have enough work to do. Similar incidents have occurred at the Environmental Protection Agency, where agency employees were paid for skipping work while managers looked the other way.
The auditors have all recommended that agency officials develop a more effective oversight strategy in order to curb misconduct. It’s unclear, for now, if any of the agencies have done so.
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