The IRS recalled employees in four states today, about two weeks after first embarking on a phased reopening of its facilities. It’s a transition that’s left workers and union leaders cautiously optimistic about the agency’s commitment to new safety measures.
The agency on June 1 brought thousands of workers back to facilities in Kentucky, Texas, and Utah. The latest stage affects Georgia, Michigan, Tennessee, and Missouri.
There have been few isolated incidents of employees reporting problems, such as workspaces being too close, but “for the most part, there aren’t any really big issues,” said Tony Reardon, the national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents IRS employees. Reardon spoke to leaders of local union chapters at the end of last week.
Robert Muraida, an IRS customer service representative in Austin, said he experienced a minor hiccup with the agency’s social distancing policies, describing an incident in which he volunteered to work overtime and was seated too close to other employees. But the problem was eventually resolved.
“It takes a little while to get everything straightened out,” Muraida said, later adding that the IRS has mostly “been very, very receptive to problems.”
This feedback is in stark contrast to what local union leaders and employees were saying at the beginning of the pandemic—before the IRS closed its facilities—when they would raise “issue after issue,” Reardon said. The lack of major problems is a promising sign for today’s four-state recall and the one beginning June 29 in California, Indiana, Ohio, Oregon, and Puerto Rico.
IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig previously said the agency would keep hand sanitizer and other protective equipment stocked, maintain proper social distancing, and allow employees who are at high risk of serious health complications, or who can telework, to remain at home. He also said facilities would be assessed after every shift.
“Our facilities staff is working around the clock to ensure the appropriate precautions are taken for the well-being of our employees,” Rettig said in a June 3 email to employees.
While the IRS has maintained its established safety protocols so far, the agency is still in the very early stages of its recall efforts, Reardon noted, adding that there’s no telling whether “everything’s going to be rosy from here on out.”
The IRS could strengthen its current safety policies by adding new measures, such as on-site temperature checks, according to agency employees, their representatives, and lawmakers like House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.).
Employees are disappointed that the agency isn’t employing these checks, said Debbie Mullikin, president of the NTEU Chapter 73 in Covington, Ky.
“There’s been advice that that’s not necessary, that folks should take their temperature at home before coming to work,” she said.
Reardon said he’d like workers to have access to free virus testing and for the IRS to use contact tracing to identify people who may have been exposed to infected individuals to limit the spread of Covid-19 at agency facilities.
“We are still concerned about the lack of any contact tracing system within IRS facilities, particularly as we see a steady trickle of employees and non-employee occupants test positive for the virus after returning to work,” said Chad Hooper, national president of the Professional Managers Association, which represents IRS managers and supervisors.
The IRS in May had to temporarily close its campus in Kansas City, Mo., after an employee tested positive for Covid-19 just days after voluntarily returning to the office.
An employee working in one of the Austin campus buildings recently tested positive for the virus, said Eddie Walker, president of the NTEU Chapter 247 in Austin.
The IRS didn’t return requests for comment, including an inquiry about the Austin development.
The Professional Managers Association and the NTEU reiterated calls for more flexibility for caregivers who have been asked to return to work in states where schools, summer camps, and daycares remain closed. The managers’ association also said it remains concerned about guards at some federal buildings not wearing face masks when they screen employees entering the buildings.
Second Wave Fears
Several of the states that have brought IRS workers back, including Texas and Utah, have recently seen spikes in coronavirus cases—putting employees and their managers on edge.
“The agency will face a coming challenge now that reports nationally reflect the likelihood of a second wave of infections, seemingly sooner than later in many states where the agency has reopened or plans to reopen in June,” Hooper said.
He said the association is closely monitoring the agency’s response in those states and has requested a briefing on how changing pandemic conditions impact the decision-making process to resume operations.
And the NTEU is just beginning to have conversations with the IRS about this issue, Reardon said.
“If we’ve got people going back to work and these states are starting to increase dramatically in terms of the number of Covid-19 cases, that is a major concern,” he said.