March 29, 2020
Out of frustration, I am sending this letter to you after spending many hours in the last few weeks working with USPTO management on the COVID-19 pandemic.
POPA has put in a lot of time trying to advocate and get relief for our employees only to have many joint ideas die because they cannot get through the levels of clearance required.
What concerns do the employees have that POPA has been trying to help with?
- To allow employees to maximize telework for employees. We had been advocating for this for weeks to get as many employees out teleworking as early as we could to have a staggered release of employees. At first it was only for those in high-risk groups and on a case-by-case basis. Maximum telework was finally allowed starting March 16, 2020 after Department of Commerce sent out guidance.
- As soon as employees started going out on full-time telework, we advocated for equipment. We understand this takes time but no decisions were made and conveyed to employees.
- Employees were put on mandatory telework on March 23, 2020. Employees are now forced to telework and many only have lap tops, some have never teleworked, some do not have internet. The only advice offered was start teleworking and you can’t come into the buildings.
- POPA asked (and continues to ask) management for monitors and printers for employees. We eventually received some guidance on using our own equipment. Employees are now left in the quandary of whether to buy personal equipment, wait until equipment is offered by the USPTO or wait for further instruction.
- All employees are facing issues with connectivity. Employees around the country, not just USPTO employees, have been sent home to work along with children who are now doing remote learning. This creates competition for bandwidth. The problem for USPTO employees is that a vast majority of them are on production. So far, only examiners who had signed an ad hoc, PTP-10 or PTP-20 telework agreement were given any adjustment in their productivity for this past biweek, which is the last biweek of the quarter. Employees will receive their mid-year rating based on their performance through this last biweek.
- The WebEx has not been performing well at all. Even though we are encouraged to use the collaboration tools, meetings often start with an announcement for everyone to turn off their cameras. Then if the audio is bad, call in using a cell phone. Junior Examiners cannot function like this when it is so important that they have the opportunity to have face-to-face interaction with their primaries and SPEs who are training them and reviewing their work.
- Employees will be missing out on awards they have proudly worked for and earned for many quarters, years, decades because no relief or very little relief has been given for the problems they are having trying to do their work.
- Employees are headed into performance trouble and may end up on performance warnings because they can’t do the production expected of them when they do not have a full suite of equipment.
- This is the last biweek of the quarter and employees have not been informed how they will be treated if they are having performance issues due to their current working conditions. That information should have gone out this past week so employees did not have added stress piled on the stress of the current COVID-19 pandemic environment which we all are living in.
- Many employees are working furiously this weekend, on their own time, myself included, to finish as much work as possible under the sub-par conditions they are being forced to work under.
- There are employees who are dealing with trying conditions at home with schools closed, having to wait outside stores to buy groceries, caring for children, other dependents or elderly parents (or in my case, not being able to visit or communicate with my mother in her assisted living home) and being required to fulfill their performance requirements with no help from the agency. POPA has received emails sent out to Treasury and SEC employees granting them administrative leave of up to 20 hours per biweek for issues that prevent them working due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Then there are our probationary employees. We have employees who started here at the USPTO as late as February 18, 2020. I worry about all of the probationary employees especially if we are out on mandatory telework for a lengthy period of time. The most recent hires have not even finished their training. POPA has not been informed as to what is happening to these employees. Our understanding is that they were sent home with only their lap top.
- None of these situations are going to get better on their own and will probably worsen as the length of mandatory telework is extended.
POPA has spent many hours talking to management about these issues and helping employees with the issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic on our own time due to the Executive Orders limiting our union official time. I believe USPTO management considers us to be a benefit to making the USPTO a better place for our employees and customers.
We need USPTO management to communicate with employees in a timely fashion, help employees continue to succeed by providing equipment, provide time for changes to working conditions which have led to work inefficiencies and work to improve the performance of the collaboration tools such as WebEx to help employees be productive.