Inspector General to Federal Employees: No, You Shouldn't Bill Time Spent Watching Star Trek Movies to the Government


Still from the IRS Star Trek parody

Bad news for federally employed Trekkies: You can't bill hours spent at the theater watching the latest Star Trek movie to the government—even if you take your whole office with you.

That's the conclusion of the Commerce Department inspector general (IG), who indicated in a report this week that hours spent at the movies, even if they happen during the course of a regular workday and are intended as team-building activities, should not in fact be counted as billable hours on the job.

As The Washington Post notes, the IG report came in response to a group outing to an afternoon matinee:

In May 2013, a supervisor at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series — which monitors, among other things, space weather — organized a "team building" activity in the middle of the day to go grab lunch together and then all see the 2 p.m. showing of "Star Trek Into Darkness."

According to the IG report, "the government paid $3,487.31 in taxpayer-funded wages for employees" to attend the screening of the 132 minute long movie, which, granted, is less than the $5,500 the Internal Revenue Service paid in set-building costs and staff time for the development of a low-rent Star Trek parody several years ago.  

Even still, billing time spent at the multiplex was…inappropriate, the IG decided.

The OIG concluded that, unlike training events, which are designed to develop professional skills and therefore may be counted as work-hours, watching a Star Trek movie offered no professional development opportunities. Therefore, even if such an event resulted in greater unity or cohesion, the hours spent at the event should not have been billed to the government.

The IG did not conclude, but probably should have, that Star Trek Into Darkness was terrible. 

Obviously these sorts of judgments differ based on professional circumstances. I can certainly see some private businesses deciding to sponsor movie outings or afternoon baseball games or trips to Chuck E. Cheese for their staffers, and that's perfectly fine if they want do. But because public employees are paid with taxpayer dollars, they are inevitably going to be held to a different standard. That's as it ought to be. There are plenty of benefits to working for the federal government. Afternoons out at the movies probably shouldn't be one of them.