The IRS has asked about 10,000 employees to return to work Monday to perform tasks, including opening mail, processing paper tax returns, and taking phone calls.
The agency announced the decision in an email sent to employees Friday in which it also told employees they’d be responsible for their own mandatory face coverings until it can procure personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves.
The decision comes after the IRS was forced to shut down all of its major facilities in response to the coronavirus pandemic at a time when its workload is larger than ever. Not only is the agency in the middle of a filing season that will last through mid-July, but it has been tasked with processing millions of one-time stimulus payments. Taxpayers and their advisers have complained that it’s been difficult to reach the agency, which has struggled to bring more of its workers up-to-speed with telework.
The internal email was released publicly Saturday by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman John Lewis (D-Ga.). The Democratic tax writers in a news release panned the decision, saying, “It is completely irresponsible and unethical for the IRS to demand those workers obtain their own protective equipment—this is the responsibility of the federal government to its workers.”
The lawmakers said the announcement is particularly alarming because IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig earlier in the week informed congressional staff that 100 IRS employees have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and four have died due to the virus.
The IRS responded to the backlash in a statement Saturday, saying it has requested—but isn’t requiring—the workers to return to their posts at campuses across the country. The agency also said it’s offering incentive pay for those who decide to volunteer.
“No employees have been requested to return to work in a manner inconsistent with federal Covid-19 guidelines, and the requirement for employees voluntarily returning to the workplace to wear face coverings is an example of the IRS exceeding the federal safety guidelines and measures,” the agency said. It added that it expects much of the personal protective equipment it is trying to procure for employees to be delivered as early as this weekend and the upcoming week.
The IRS said it is essential that the agency resumes certain duties “to provide American taxpayers, including the most vulnerable, with the services they expect.”
Tony Reardon, the president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents IRS employees, said in a statement Saturday that the union appreciates that the IRS is first soliciting volunteers but noted that employees will be directed to return if there aren’t enough volunteers.
“We are communicating with the IRS about working conditions at those facilities to make sure there are adequate cleaning and disinfecting supplies, accommodations to allow for physical distancing among employees and personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves,” Reardon said.