The IRS is taking several new steps to address employees’ concerns about the coronavirus outbreak, including eliminating in-person visits at taxpayer assistance centers and slashing staffing numbers at return processing centers in half, according to an internal email obtained by Bloomberg Tax.
IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig in a previous email to employees announced that the agency would be expanding telework for certain employees and providing more flexibility with leave requests. The decision came shortly after the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents agency employees, criticized IRS leadership for failing to take quick enough action to protect workers from the pandemic.
Since then several IRS employees, particularly those working in call centers and submission processing centers, have contacted Bloomberg Tax saying they work in cubicles in close proximity to their coworkers and there has been a lack of options for employees who aren’t eligible to work remotely. They said many individuals were having to decide between going into work even if they felt unsafe, using up their paid sick and vacation leave, or taking time off without pay.
“Although not visible to many of you, there are many, many people working long hours to help our employees,” Rettig said in the most recent email to employees sent Thursday evening.
“As a federal agency vital to the overall operations of our country at this difficult time, we are unfortunately not able to simply shut down our operations,” he said.
Even so, the IRS is taking several immediate measures to improve worker safety, he said. This includes ending walk-in and in-person appointments with taxpayers at the IRS’s taxpayer assistance centers and walk-in services with the Taxpayer Advocate Service—an independent arm of the agency that helps taxpayers resolve disputes with the IRS.
The IRS will also reduce staffing by about 50% at agency facilities involved in “mission-critical operations.” This includes call centers and submission processing centers in places like Kansas City, Mo.; Ogden, Utah; Austin, Texas; and Fresno, Calif.
The virus is hitting the U.S. in the middle of the current tax filing season and these sites help assist taxpayers who may have questions or need paper returns processed. Individuals and corporations can defer tax payments until July under new IRS guidance but still have to file their returns by April 15.
The temporary changes to protect employees against the novel coronavirus should not have a significant impact on the agency’s mission-critical functions, such as processing tax returns and refunds, Rettig said.
He advised all employees who are eligible for telework to work remotely.
When appropriate, employees who are not eligible for telework will be placed on weather and safety leave, he said. This is paid leave provided to employees who are prevented from safely traveling to or performing work at a location approved by the agency due to an emergency situation.
“These guidelines will be reassessed on April 4, and we will continue to monitor developments around the clock,” Rettig said.