Federal Government Pays Workers $5 Million to Not Work
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The Fiscal Times
August 4, 2014

The federal government has a serious problem keeping tabs on its employees, from an FCC worker watching porn while at work, to DHS employees collecting overtime pay to sit on Netflix or talk on the phone.

And now, a new report from the Patent and Trademark Office found that at least 19 paralegals have been getting paid $60,000 to $80,000 a year to sit on Facebook, online shop and watch TV --costing taxpayers about $5.1 million in the last four years. Even more egregious -- the auditors said managers looked the other way and billed the hours under “other time” while also giving each of the workers thousands of dollars worth of performance bonuses during that same time period.

Related: Employee Misconduct Runs Rampant at the EPA

The managers “were completely aware of the volume of ‘other time’ hours during the relevant time frame and took little action to prevent such waste,” the IG said. The auditors said one manager even dubbed the billing code the “I don’t have work but I’m going to get paid code.”

Whistleblowers told auditors that the paralegals just didn’t have enough work to do, so they spent their time doing other things—some even volunteered for charity organizations while clocked in at the Patent and Trademark Office.

The report said “nonproductive time” racked up to between 50 and 70 hours in an 80-hour pay period. The paralegals were “sitting on their hands” while the backlog of appeals at the Patent and Trademark Office piled up. According to auditors, the number of appeals doubled from 12,500 in 2009 to 25, 300 in 2013. But whistleblowers said the paralegals rely on judges to assign them work and there weren’t enough judges on staff to assign new cases.

NTEU National President Colleen M. Kelley defended the workers, saying they alerted the agency that they weren’t given enough work to do. “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.

Related: Meet the Federal Government’s Fraudulent Five

The report was the subject of a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, where lawmakers pressed Patent and Trademark Office official Michelle Lee on whether or not the paralegals would be fired.  

“In the private sector, these people wouldn’t be employed long. And to add insult to injury, they’ll get put on administrative leave,” Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) said during the hearing, GovExec noted. “It’s a perfect example of how government has grown, and the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

Lee said the agency is taking the issue “very seriously and is evaluating all options.”

The Patent and Trademark Office is hardly alone in its lack of oversight over some of its employees’ work practices. Just last week, The Washington Times reported that 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.

FCC officials have not commented on what, if anything, they will do to deal with the worker. In another case, an Environmental Protection Agency employee admitted to spending two hours a day watching porn. EPA auditors confirmed that when they went to investigate, they caught him watching it on his agency authorized computer.

With more than 4 million federal workers, there are bound to be a few bad apples. Still managers authorized these fraudulent payments and federal auditors have recommended that agencies tighten up the oversight of their workforce.

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Washington Correspondent Brianna Ehley, based in D.C., covers Congress, government agencies and spending issues, health care, and tax and economic policy for The Fiscal Times.