Panel to review telework impasse

Federal Service Impasses Panel

The Federal Service Impasses Panel next month is expected to consider a negotiation impasse between patent examiners and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office over a teleworking program that was suspended in June.

In July 2001, USPTO launched a Work@Home pilot program for some of its senior patent examiners. However, almost a year later, USPTO suspended the program after the agency and the Patent Office Professional Association (POPA) failed to come to an agreement on how the program should proceed.

The panel resolves impasses between federal agencies and federal unions arising from negotiations over conditions of employment under the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute and the Federal Employees Flexible and Compressed Work Schedules Act.

"The situation is dismal. It's a big disappointment," said Ronald Stern, president of POPA. "This summer we thought we were close to an agreement." About 315 patent examiners were participating in the program when it was suspended, he said recently.

One of the sticking points, Stern said, includes reluctance by USPTO to continue to support the hardware and software that the patent examiners use while working at home. "I think the agency saw providing hardware and software an expensive proposition," Stern said.

However, he said a "lite" version of the full-fledged software used by patent examiners was sufficient for those participating in the Work@Home program. They use the software to help analyze the applications and references and formulate their decisions. "Writing that up is what people do at home," Stern said. Without the software, patent examiners would have to retype their work after returning to the office, he said.

Last year's version of the software is good enough, he said, so there is no need for the agency to upgrade the product. "The question is why not allow people to continue to use it," he said.

Also at issue, Stern said, is the push by USPTO to change the schedule of those working at home so that some of them are in the office more often. The union also wants a larger group of patent examiners than is being proposed by the agency to be allowed to work at home.

USPTO appears willing to work out a deal. "We support Work@Home, but it has to be tailored to our business needs," said Brigid Quinn, spokeswoman for USPTO. "Not all examiners can be out of the office for a number of reasons" including the fact that new and junior patent examiners need training from senior patent examiners.

"It's very important we keep a cadre of our senior examiners in the office to provide the mentoring for newer examiners," Quinn said.

The teleworking program has worked well on the trademark side with about half of the trademark examining attorneys participating and the program will be expanded, Quinn said. USPTO officials hope to use lessons learned and apply them to the patent side.

However, what works with trademarks does not necessarily work with patents.

Trademark applications are not confidential, but patent applications are. Trademark applications are usually several pages long, while patent applications can run about 80 pages. The average trademark search takes about 20 minutes, while patent searches take hours. As a result, it is more difficult and costly to provide computer support to at-home patent examiners, Quinn said.

The overall goal, Quinn added, is to "ensure quality and improve productivity."

Pamela Schwartz, assistant secretary at POPA, said she expects the panel to take jurisdiction of the dispute and consider the case in January.

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