Officials at PTO 'blindsided' by overtime grievance

The Patent and Trademark Office was "blindsided" by allegations of forced overtime and stringent production standards at the agency, a top PTO official said Thursday. The National Treasury Employees Union filed a grievance with PTO on Monday, alleging that hundreds of trademark attorneys in the agency's Washington-area headquarters office are "induced, encouraged or expected" to work unpaid overtime in order to satisfy overly harsh production requirements. The grievance asks for back pay with interest for approximately 500 current and former PTO employees. "It comes as a surprise to us...and we just signed a new contract for [the local union]," said Clarence Crawford, PTO's chief financial officer and chief administrative officer. "From our perspective, we believe that our employees can and do accomplish their work within the 80 hour bi-week pay period arrangement." The agency's overtime policy requires employees to approve overtime in advance, Crawford said. Employees then choose whether they want to be paid or whether they want to take compensatory time instead. "We're not perfect, but when we you look at the data coming out of the trademark office, it doesn't appear to be consistent [with the union's action]," Crawford said, citing statistics from the third annual federal employee satisfaction survey conducted by the National Partnership for Reinventing Government and the Office of Personnel Management. "Job satisfaction improved from 40 percent to 67 percent," Crawford continued. "We're just surprised with what has happened with the grievance." Trademark examiners research trademark applications and make decisions about the validity of the applications. Points are given for completed steps in the trademark application and registration process. Trademark examiners have strict quotas for processing applications, and managers have robust data on how long it takes to get applications in and out the door. Bonuses are paid to employees who surpass their production requirements. "The only way to reach the level of production expected by front-line and other managers is to work uncompensated hours well beyond the work week, and in violation of [the Federal Employees Pay Act]," said NTEU President Colleen Kelley. Under the act, agencies must pay career employees outside of the Senior Executive Service overtime if they work more than 40 hours per week. According to Kelley, allowances have not been made in the processing system to accommodate things that lengthen the processing time, such as incomplete applications. "They want to meet the standards so the applications are processed for the agencies and so that they are acceptably performing their work. And in many cases, to get these bonuses," Kelley said. "I believe that employees would like to have the standards be reflective of the work that it takes to do one of these applications appropriately, so that they can meet the standards … in a 40 hour work week." But one trademark attorney who has worked at the agency for 10 years says the allegations in the grievance are "blatantly unfair." "Show me the evidence that there is a substantial amount of people doing forced unpaid overtime to get to the production level," the attorney said. "For the union to claim that they are going to try to get hundreds of attorneys back pay for forced unpaid overtime, wherein the suggestion is they can't do their work without unpaid overtime, is in my mind, clearly erroneous and hurts the attorneys here." The attorney said management does encourage employees to work harder because the agency is under a strict federal mandate to reduce its application processing to three months, but "nobody's ever been coerced or otherwise forced to reach whatever goal they are seeking," he said. Trademark applications took an average of 7.2 months to process in 1998. The goal to reduce that to three months by the end of 1999 has not yet been met. "Most of the folks here are hard-working attorneys doing their jobs," the attorney said. "Management and the union are working together on other good things and to come out now and say we're getting screwed is, in my mind, wrong." Crawford said he was is hopeful a solution can be ironed out between the agency and the union. "We're optimistic that when we sit down and talk with them we can talk things out," he said. "Relationships sometimes sort of hit these bumps in the road, and we need to figure out what we need to do and move on. This is not from our standpoint a showstopper, but it is unfortunate."
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