B-308044, Patent and Trademark Office--High-speed Internet Access in Employees' Homes, January 10, 2007
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) may reimburse employees for high-speed internet service at employees’ homes incident to the agency’s telework program. We recommend that PTO periodically review reimbursements to ensure that it has adequate safeguards against private misuse and is reimbursing employees for home internet service used for official purposes.
The Acting Chief Financial
Officer of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has requested an
advance decision under 31 U.S.C. sect. 3529 on the propriety of reimbursing its
employees for costs associated with maintaining high-speed internet access at
employees’ homes incident to the agency’s telework program. Letter from Barry K. Hudson, Acting
Our practice when rendering decisions is to obtain the
views of the relevant federal agency to establish a factual record and to
elicit the agency’s legal position on the matter. GAO, Procedures
and Practices for Legal Decisions and Opinions,
The Patent and Trademark Office is a federal agency within
the Department of Commerce charged with promoting the progress of science and
the useful arts by securing for limited times to inventors the exclusive right
to their discoveries. PTO proposes a telecommuting program that
would permit its employees to telecommute up to 4 days per week from an
approved designated alternative work site, typically the employee’s home.
Employees requesting reimbursement must submit copies of
invoices from their internet service provider (ISP) and attest to the
appropriate percentage of ISP services used for work-related purposes.
The program would only reimburse the basic rate for ISP
connection services per billing period. See Policy at para.12. That is, PTO would not reimburse charges or
costs associated with service initiation, activation, installation, or
deactivation; taxes; equipment rental fees; or any other miscellaneous charges
To ensure that the program only covers ISP connection costs,
PTO would deduct amounts from reimbursement requests based on certain required
employee disclosures. For example,
participating employees would be required to disclose any “free” equipment or
other promotional items or rebates that they receive from their ISP.
PTO has imposed other controls that it believes will help ensure
that ISP services are reimbursed only for work-related purposes. For example, PTO would measure the productivity
of participating employees biweekly, quarterly, and annually. Toupin Letter at 2. Employee performance plans establish
standards for required production rates.
The Patent and Trademark Office asks whether it may use its appropriations to reimburse employees for home high-speed internet access under its proposed telecommuting program.
Public Law 104-52 authorizes federal agencies to use
appropriated funds to install telephone lines and “necessary equipment” and to
pay monthly charges in any residence of an employee authorized to work at home,
provided that the agency “certifies that adequate safeguards against private
misuse exist, and that the service is necessary for direct support of the
agency’s mission.” Treasury, Postal
Service, and General Government Appropriations Act, 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-52,
title VI, sect. 620, 109 Stat. 468, 501 (
PTO has determined that internet access is “necessary equipment” for PTO employees authorized to work at home and necessary for direct support of PTO’s mission as required by section 620 of Public Law 104-52. Internet service has become an essential tool in today’s workplace. As PTO explains, patent examiners must have high-speed internet access to telework without diminished performance. We agree. Like telephone service, internet access is necessary for PTO employees, regardless of worksite, and in particular to telework without diminished performance.
The question remains whether PTO can certify, as section 620 requires, that its proposal provides “adequate safeguards against private misuse.” Over the years, our Office has issued a number of decisions concerning adequate safeguards for cost reimbursements of items and services that would otherwise be considered a personal expense of federal employees. Consistent with section 620, we have not objected to reimbursement plans, for example, for use of personal cell phones for official purposes where adequate safeguards prevent improper reimbursement for personal use.
We found adequate safeguards in a Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC) proposal to reimburse employees for the actual costs of
maintaining personal cell phone service for official use and the additional
costs of official calls actually made or received on the employees’ cell phones. B-291076,
In another case, we objected to a Western Area Power
Administration (WAPA) proposal to reimburse employees for government use of
personal cell phones at a flat rate, without additional tracking and accounting
Here, PTO has proposed a number of safeguards similar to
those we considered in NRC’s cell phone reimbursement plan. See B-291076,
We do not object to PTO’s telecommuting program proposal, but
recommend that PTO periodically review ISP reimbursements. Periodic reviews, which could include such
things as analyses of payment trends, would help support PTO’s factual basis
for certifying that it has adequate safeguards against private misuse and it is
reimbursing employees for home internet service used for official
purposes. Pub. L. No. 104-52, sect. 620.
See also 35 U.S.C. sections 3512
(b), (c) (requiring federal agencies to maintain internal controls); GAO, Policy and Procedures Manual for Guidance of
Federal Agencies, title 7 (Washington, D.C.: May 18, 1993), available at www.gao.gov/decisions/ppm7.pdf
We do not object to PTO’s proposal to reimburse employees for high-speed internet service at the employees’ home incident to the agency’s telework program. We recommend that PTO periodically review the reimbursements to ensure that it has adequate safeguards against private misuse and it is reimbursing employees for home internet service used for official purposes.
Gary L. Kepplinger
See, e.g., Department Of
Transportation and Related Agencies Appropriations, 2001, Pub. L. No. 106-346,
sect. 359, 114 Stat. 1356, 1356A-36 (
 Our 1989 decision predates the telework statutes cited above, but its logic remains relevant. We did not object to the compensation of federal employees for work done at home when, among other things, the agency could verify and measure the performance of assigned work against established quantity and quality norms. 68 Comp. Gen. 502.