The IRS is in the midst of a return-to-office effort that will offer many employees the option to telework some or most of the time, something agency officials and union leaders view as an asset in recruiting.
The Covid-19 pandemic forced the agency to close its offices for several months in 2020. While employees tasked with processing paper tax returns and other documents have been working in-person for the last two years, many other employees have continued to work remotely.
The IRS is taking a phased approach to bringing everyone back to the office, which started in late April with members of leadership coming in at least once per pay period. As of May 8, employees without formal telework agreements were required to return to the office, and other employees could do so voluntarily.
“We’re starting to see increased foot traffic in our buildings again,” Geralda Larkins, project director of return to office at the IRS, said in an interview.
Normal operations are scheduled to begin on June 25, when employees will need to follow the specific rules of their telework agreements, including whether they need to be in-office a certain number of days each pay period or need to telework within a certain distance of their office.
The return-to-office effort comes at the agency tries to fill thousands of open jobs, from entry-level jobs at processing centers and agency help lines to a new leadership role focused on improving taxpayer experience. Like many employers during “The Great Resignation,” recruiting and retention is a challenge for the IRS, but agency leaders view expanded remote work flexibility as a recruiting tool for many roles.
“We recognize that flexibilities make us competitive with other agencies and the private sector, and so we do continue to promote our flexibilities to make sure we are staying competitive,” Larkins said.
Most Continue to Work from Home
The agency offered remote work to tens of thousands of employees before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, about half of the IRS’s 78,000 employees were eligible for telework, according to a recent Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration report. An average of about one third of agency employees teleworked at least once per week between October 2019 and early March 2020.
The number of remote IRS workers grew dramatically in the second half of March 2020 and grew steadily thereafter, according to TIGTA. In the week ending March 12—roughly two years into the pandemic—nearly 65,000 IRS employees reported telework time, the watchdog said.
It remains to be seen exactly how many IRS employees will opt for telework and how regularly those employees will choose to work from home once normal operations resume. But leaders of IRS employee organizations noted there are more telework-eligible positions than compared to before the pandemic.
The most recent collective-bargaining agreement with the National Treasury Employees Union, which took effect in October, expanded the number of positions eligible for remote work. For example, the customer-service representatives that staff IRS help lines are now eligible to work outside of the agency’s call centers.
‘Essential’ Recruiting Tool
Chad Hooper, executive director of the Professional Managers Association, which represents IRS managers, said the agency needs to emphasize its telework options in particular as it looks to fill highly skilled information technology jobs and younger workers. Both are areas where the IRS has particularly struggled to attract new employees, he said.
For those IT jobs, which are important to support billions in spending on technology maintenance and upgrades, the agency is competing with private-sector employers that can offer much higher pay.
Leaders in the IRS’s human capital office “really understand” the need to highlight telework opportunities, Hooper said.
NTEU National President Tony Reardon agreed that touting remote work opportunities is “absolutely essential” for the IRS. In addition to the recruiting benefits, he noted that telework will reduce the number of workers in offices at one time, making it easier to socially distance.
Reardon suggested that the IRS should consider keeping maximum telework for a little longer, because many areas of the US are seeing increases in COVID-19 cases. He acknowledged that there are probably some positions where it isn’t feasible for the IRS to continue maximum telework, but said at a minimum, the IRS should look at doing this in counties with medium or high transmission.
“I just think it’s something that should be looked into,” Reardon said.
The IRS, in a statement to Bloomberg Tax, said the agency monitors Covid-19 case counts and will “adjust its mitigation strategies as needed.”
Virtual Work to Continue
While more IRS employees are expected to come into IRS offices in the coming weeks, agency employees are expected to continue to perform some tasks virtually.
For example, Scott Irick, director of examinations in the IRS’s Small Business/Self-Employed Division, said at a May conference that he expected virtual examinations to continue.
In many instances, the flexibility offered by remote work made things easier for taxpayers who interact with the agency.
Andy Keyso, chief of the IRS Independent Office of Appeals, said there is a “real role” for video appeals conferences. While his workers can schedule in-person conferences when they return to their offices, Keyso said he intends for video conferences to continue to be available.
“Some taxpayers are just not near an Appeals office,” Keyso said. “They don’t want to come into an Appeals office, and they want something more than telephone.”
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