With too little work and too much free time, paralegal employees at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office were paid more than $5 million while doing nothing for four years.

Their bosses knew about it the whole time but did nothing about it because they feared a government employee union.

The 19 paralegal specialists were hired in 2008 to help alleviate a growing backlog of appeals at the patent office.

However, without more patent judges — who the paralegals were mostly dependent on for work — the employees found themselves with "insufficient workloads and considerable idle time during work hours," according to the Department of Commerce inspector general.

"In the worst cases, paralegals seemed content to have extensive idle time while collecting full salaries and benefits, and [management] seemed to sit on their hands, anticipating the arrival of judges at some unknown date in the future," the IG said.

Knowing the paralegal specialists were so idle, the patent office changed their billing code to "other time" — described to the IG by one senior manager as the "I don't have work but I'm going to get paid code."

For example, in 2011, the paralegals logged more than 27,000 hours as "other time" and nearly 26,000 hours the following year.

So what exactly were employees doing during this time? Watching television, doing laundry, working out, making personal phone calls and online shopping, among other non-work activities, the paralegals told the IG investigators. Some even logged their "other time" work hours from home.

Managers at the patent office were aware of the high amount of "other time" hours logged, and took "little action to prevent such waste," the IG found.

The patent office paid the paralegals more than $4.3 million in "other time" wages between 2009 and 2013, according to the IG investigation.

In addition to getting paid for such little work, the paralegals were rewarded with performance bonuses of "thousands of dollars apiece," according to the IG.

Some paralegals who logged more than 50 percent of their work hours as "other time" received between $2,000 and $2,500 in bonuses each year, the IG said.

In total, the paralegals received more than $681,000 in bonuses, and their specific managers received bonuses totaling more than $87,000, the IG found.

Management ignored the problem because it believed hiring new judges would fix the idle paralegals problem, but that in turn could anger their union, the according to the IG report.

"Some managers also felt constrained by the paralegals’ labor union, believing that any steps to address the 'other time' issue would create conflict with the union," the IG said.