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IRS Facing Union Pressure to Take More Coronavirus Precautions

March 12, 2020, 8:09 PM

The union representing IRS employees is ramping up calls for the agency to improve its coronavirus response, saying there hasn’t been enough done to keep workers safe.

Businesses and event organizers across the U.S. have taken precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus—canceling large events and asking employees to work from home. National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon, who held a call with reporters Thursday, said the federal government isn’t adopting similar measures fast enough.

“The overall government effort to protect employees has fallen far short,” he said.

Some agencies are worse than others, Reardon said. IRS employees complain the agency isn’t providing enough access to hand sanitizer, gloves, and other types of protective equipment even though many of them are opening mail and handling other people’s tax documents, he said.

The NTEU represents more than 150,000 federal employees in 33 agencies, including the IRS.

Reardon said he’s also heard “disconcerting stories” about the lack of effort at the IRS to maintain clean workstations, despite recommendations to make this a priority.

The agency didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

It’s crucial that the IRS commissioner pay attention to the needs of his workforce, especially because so many employees are retirement eligible or nearing retirement, said former IRS Commissioner Mark Everson. Everson is now vice chairman of alliantgroup LP.

IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig in April 2019 said 45% of the IRS workforce will be eligible to retire within the next two years.

“The blunt reality is there are too many people who can opt out,” Everson said.

‘It’s Being Discussed’

The IRS has already suspended all non-essential travel for 30 days unless it’s “mission critical.”

But NTEU has asked the agency to take further steps to expand telework availability and replace or supplement in-person visits at Taxpayer Assistance Centers with telephone appointments.

Those recommendations have been met with responses of “it’s under consideration” and “it’s being discussed,” but no substantive changes have been made, Reardon said.

It should be possible for the IRS to ramp up telework because there are already remote policies and procedures and secure networks in place for many employees, former IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said.

He and other former IRS officials pointed out that many of the employees out in the field, such as revenue agents and officers, already work remotely much of the time.

The agency, however, is in a tough spot because the spread of the virus comes in the middle of the current filing season, which is the busiest time of year. And some functions can’t be performed from home.

There is also a lot of correspondence still happening via fax and snail mail at the IRS so someone needs to be in the office to receive that, said former National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson. In addition, paper returns have to be processed onsite, although this has become less of a problem in recent years with about 90% of people filing electronically, she said.

The administration has said it intends to allow individuals and businesses to defer tax filing and tax payments, which could lift some pressure off of the IRS by spreading the agency’s processing work out over several more months. It hasn’t said whether the expectations and responsibilities of the IRS would change at all.

Despite these challenges, Reardon said there is much room for improvement in the IRS’s coronavirus response.

“There has not been to this point, so far as I can tell anyway, a lot that has actually been done to deal with workplace flexibilities,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Allyson Versprille in Washington at aversprille@bloombergtax.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Patrick Ambrosio at pambrosio@bloombergtax.com; Colleen Murphy at cmurphy@bloombergtax.com

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