USPTO telework accord reached

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"Doing home work"

About 700 experienced patent examiners will be able to work from home one day a week, but without the software the union says they need to their job well.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the Patent Office Professional Association have reached an agreement on a telework program that was suspended in June 2002 when the two groups clashed on how the program should proceed.

"It expanded the coverage to a lot more people," union President Ronald Stern said of the agreement. Originally, the program would have allowed only 350 examiners to work at home, he said.

"Unfortunately, in the area of hardware and software support, the agency is just being stingy and I think a little bit foolish," Stern said, "because they won't provide the software that worked before."

When the telework program started in July 2001, examiners were using a "lite" version of the software they use at the office. The software helped examiners analyze applications and make decisions but didn't allow them to access secure databases. The software didn't work on all home computers and rather than extend software support, USPTO is not providing software or hardware.

"We will not be providing computers for them," USPTO spokeswoman Brigid Quinn said. "They won't be doing the searching and all of the high-tech things they do. It's far too costly and complicated at this point to provide the hardware, software, lines."

Patent examiners access more than 900 databases, and searches can take hours. Quinn said examiners wouldn't be able to perform speedy searches from home. Instead, examiners will be doing writing and paperwork, possibly relying on their home computers and later pasting their work onto the proper forms at work.

Another sticking point that caused an impasse was concerns that too many senior examiners would be out of the office and unavailable to mentor junior examiners. The 700 eligible examiners represent 60 percent of the agency's top-level examiners, which is only about 20 percent of all examiners, Quinn said. With examiners working under different requirements and likely working from home on different days, enough senior examiners should be in the office.

Stern called the agreement not the "most desirable" compromise, and it's a program he hopes to build on in the future.

The telework program has worked well on the trademark side, with about half of the trademark examiners participating. Trademark applications, however, are not confidential like patent applications, and examiners search one database in-house, Quinn said.

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