Too much of a good thing?

In a recent column, I touched on the US Patent Office's decision to terminate its nascent telework programme. Turns out, this is one meaty issue that pits employees' job satisfaction against the Fed's bottom line.

          In a recent column, I touched on the US Patent Office's decision to terminate its nascent telework programme. Since, I've spoken with Ronald Stern, long time president of the Patent Office Professional Association (POPA), as well as patent examiners and union negotiators. Turns out, this is one meaty issue that pits employees' job satisfaction against the Fed's bottom line.

          Because the programme was a pilot, management claims it was within its rights to suspend it. "Management wanted us to agree to an end date. We said no, so they said, 'OK, we're ending it now,' " says Pam Schwartz, chief POPA negotiator.

          Management representative Richard Maulsby says the union won't agree that teleworking patent examiners must be optimal performers free from disciplinary problems, and that those who work from home part of the week share their offices. "But these are just excuses to end the programme," Stern says.

          Last year, management and the union negotiated the Millennium Agreement, a labour management contract that lays out the policies for the Patent Office's telework programme - everything from employee eligibility to a technology road map - making management's points moot. As important, the contract stipulates that after six months, both sides would meet to address problems and propose changes. Any changes would be made as the programme continued to operate.

          On an average work day, senior patent examiner Howard Locker wakes at 4.30am to face a 90-minute commute from his home in Prince William County, Virginia, to Washington, DC. On a telework day, Locker can sleep later, start his job earlier and end his day by 4.30pm. Then, he could either hit the tennis courts with his wife or help his daughter with her ninth-grade algebra.

          "At home, I was in a very quiet environment, just me and the cat. The solitude bred efficiency," Locker says. "Since I didn't have a workstation at home or access to the network's search system, I'd bring home patent applications [paper documents] and research materials to work on. I'd still check in with my junior examiners, call them up during the day. They didn't suffer, no one suffered. It was a win-win situation. For every day I worked at home, three hours of my life were given back to me. I don't know anyone on the [telework] programme who didn't love it. We're upset, and can't conceive of a good reason why they would just end it."

          So why did management pull the plug? People have their theories.

          "The agency looks at the programme and sees that employees really like it and thinks, 'We didn't extract enough payment from them. We could have gotten them to agree to other things,' " Stern says. "Because it's such a popular programme, management wants to use it as a reward for better performance when it was intended as a way to help our commuting patterns. It's not supposed to be a perk."

          "The programme is wonderful for employees, but it doesn't save management any money or space. They want to see a monetary savings," Schwartz says. "They're moving us to a new facility next year, and they can't fit us all in. They want to push the employees to give up the right to private offices. They say this is one way."

          The Millennium Agreement calls for employees who telework three days per week to share an office; management wants to change it to two days, Stern says. They also want teleworkers to share computers when in the office. "Share computers? Then all hope is lost." Stern says.

          "Management is also fixated on a pilot so it can test technical concepts. The agency wants a long-term plan that includes lots of technology, dedicated workstations in the home and multiple telework days," Schwartz says.

          "In some ways, the people doing this have good intentions. But we want them to run the telework programme while they're piloting technology concepts. But they don't want to. They're not really interested in running the programme for employees. To them, it's all about saving space and money."

          Ironically, the agency has already spent a million dollars on telework technology and only managed to get 12 or 13 workstations operational, Stern says. "It's what's wrong with this agency. The computer expenses are absolutely uncontrolled."

          POPA's not taking the agency's move lying down. Last week, it sent a petition with more than 1000 examiners' signatures to representative Frank Wolf (Republican - Virginia) and representative Tom Davis (Republican - Virginia) requesting Congress reinstate the programme.

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