Patents office faces backlog, attrition

FEDERAL WORKERS

October 19, 2007|By MELISSA HARRIS

Government backlogs are far too familiar to Americans.

Many disabled Americans must wait years to receive benefits from the Social Security Administration. Piles of unanalyzed DNA evidence are delaying justice nationwide. And hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants are stuck in line for citizenship because of a backlog of "name checks" at the FBI.

But one backlog might top them all. About 730,000 inventors are waiting for patents - the right to a 20-year monopoly on the production and sale of their inventions. Gaining the right to exclusively profit from one's work - and to file suit against people illegally copying it - is taking two years on average, according to the patent office.

"What happens sometimes is that a patent-pending technology can go obsolete before you even get a patent," said Bernard Rhee, a Baltimore-based patent attorney with Venable LLP. "This is especially true of computer software. Hopefully, the inventor has guessed right and predicted the future of where the market is going. It requires tremendous foresight."

Although the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is hiring as many new examiners as it has the capacity to supervise and train, the new workers aren't sticking around for long. According to the Government Accountability Office, half the patent examiners hired during the past five years have left.

The Government Accountability Office concluded this month that the backlog had ballooned to almost 73 percent since fiscal year 2002 because of unrealistic biweekly production goals placed on workers, which are causing the high rates of attrition.

For instance, in a January GAO survey of 1,129 patent examiners, 67 percent said that production goals were among the primary reasons they would consider leaving. One survey respondent wrote, "Vacation time means catch up time."

The goals, which vary based on position and types of patents the examiners review, haven't changed since 1976, while the complexity of the inventions has increased exponentially.

"The goals are just not sufficient to give us the amount of time we need to do the job," said Robert Budens, president of the Patent Office Professional Association, the examiners' union.

Patent examiners are experts in a scientific field who determine whether an invention is novel enough to deserve a patent. New hires are primarily responsible for removing files from the backlog, making the retention of them even more critical.

The office has tried numerous other methods - short of changing the production goals - to retain its work force, which has grown almost 73 percent since fiscal year 2002.

Larger numbers of examiners telecommute and receive tuition reimbursement than at other agencies. The office implemented a casual-dress policy. Examiners work on a special pay scale, which can exceed normal federal salaries by up to 25 percent. Workers who surpass production goals receive bonuses.

Examiners identify salary and flexible work schedules as the primary reasons for staying, according to the GAO survey. But those employees who left weren't surveyed.

Office leaders' next strategy for reducing the backlog is to require inventors to reduce examiners' workloads by supplying more evidence and materials with their applications.

Only after these changes go into effect will the office consider revising the production goals, Deputy Commerce Secretary David A. Sampson wrote in response to the GAO audit.

Pay raises

Next year's pay raises for federal workers haven't been set yet.

According to Government Executive magazine, if Congress and the president go with a 3 percent raise, federal workers in Baltimore can expect a 3.49 percent raise. If the final number is 3.5 percent, which Congress prefers, local workers will get a 4.49 percent raise.

That's due to locality pay - cost-of-living adjustments for workers living in pricier regions of the country.

The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at www.baltimoresun.com/federal.

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