Thousands of IRS workers in Kentucky, Utah, and Texas are returning to their offices today to begin sifting through a backlog of millions of unprocessed mail and returns that has built up during the coronavirus pandemic.
The mandatory recall will potentially affect about 11,000 employees who will resume jobs that can’t be performed from home.
The move will help taxpayers eager to resolve issues that have been in limbo because of the pandemic. But while IRS leadership has sworn it is taking steps to assure workers are safe, some of those returning are wary that those promises will hold up.
“Employees are extremely anxious about returning to their workplaces,” said Tony Reardon, the national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents IRS employees. One of their main concerns is whether the agency will follow through with new policies for thoroughly and regularly cleaning work sites, he said.
IRS employees are “maintaining a wait-and-see approach,” Reardon said.
IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig previously said facility staffers have coordinated cleanings, provided face coverings and hand sanitizer, and realigned work spaces to allow for proper social distancing. He’s also said the IRS plans to regularly assess work sites to ensure safety measures are being adhered to.
The agency’s previous recall, which was voluntary and included incentive pay, drew criticism from lawmakers because the IRS made the move before it had sufficient protective gear for employees. One of the critics, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), in a statement Friday said the committee will monitor the IRS’s working conditions over the coming weeks, adding that the agency’s safety measures could be strengthened by new precautions, such as on-site temperature checks.
When asked questions about the recall, the IRS referred Bloomberg Tax to the commissioner’s prior statement on reopening.
On the Agenda
The IRS focused its recall on three states where the agency processes much of the mail and paper returns it receives so that it can begin tackling its large backlog. There were 4.7 million tax returns to process and a total of 10 million pieces of unopened mail as of May 16, according to a document compiled by the House Ways and Means Committee.
“You’ve got to get the paper backlog reduced and under control as soon as you can,” said former IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, adding that the agency seems to be taking a cautious and thoughtful approach to returning workers safely.
The IRS should prioritize filing season work that’s been put on pause because of the pandemic, said former National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson. This includes cases, such as those involving taxpayers claiming the earned income tax credit, where refunds are held up because a return has been flagged by the agency’s refund fraud detection filters, she said. The IRS’s Taxpayer Advocate Service has previously found that more than half the time, these filters stop legitimate returns.
Processing those types of cases can mean the difference of thousands of dollars in refunds for families who need the money during this time, Olson said. It also frees up economic impact payments that have been delayed due to those filing season issues.
The agency won’t issue payments to taxpayers whose returns have been flagged by the IRS’s refund fraud filters and then referred to exam because the agency can’t verify the taxpayer’s income or withholding, Joshua Beck, a senior tax analyst in the Attorney Advisor Group of the Taxpayer Advocate Service, said May 28 on an American Bar Association webcast. It will also hold up payments to taxpayers who have identity theft indicators on their accounts, he said.
With more workers returning, the IRS should be able to resolve more of those issues, which, according to Beck, would allow payments to go out.
IRS employees, as well as their managers, have raised several concerns with the agency’s current recall policies.
The agency should provide virus testing and basic medical screenings for employees who must report to work, Reardon said. Currently it’s employing a self-screening process, he said.
“This system has already failed one time, and that failure makes employees even more anxious than they might otherwise be about their health and the health of their families,” he said, referring to a recent incident in Kansas City, Mo., in which an employee tested positive for Covid-19 days after voluntarily returning to the office. The agency was then forced to shut down the facility for several days while it underwent a deep cleaning.
The NTEU will closely monitor the situation, especially compliance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing standards, Reardon said. The IRS conducted its own analysis to determine how many people could be brought back while still maintaining proper distance, he said. The union will observe facilities to determine whether that analysis was correct, he added.
Chad Hooper, national president of the Professional Managers Association, which represents IRS managers and supervisors, in an email Friday said the association has shared several concerns with agency leadership. That includes those raised by members who say they’ve been screened by building guards who weren’t wearing masks—typically at facilities that contain occupants other than just the IRS, Hooper said.
PMA in a May 21 statement asked the IRS to consider adopting contact tracing methods and requested more flexibility for workers with small children or other dependents at home. The IRS has indicated those employees, which aren’t excepted from the recall, will need to use their personal leave if they are unable to report to work, the association said. Individuals who can telework or are at a high risk of serious health complications from Covid-19 aren’t subject to the return order.
For those who are returning, maintaining the workplace cleanliness and safety measures the agency has said it’s employing will be key, said Eddie Walker, an IRS employee and president of the NTEU Chapter 247 in Austin. “Nobody really has any faith that that’s going to keep,” Walker said, noting that prior to the pandemic he would field complaints from workers about food being left on the floor or trash not being taken out.
One of the biggest challenges for the IRS going forward will be continuing to balance the internal pressure on the agency to carry out its normal duties with the needs and safety of employees—many of whom view their jobs as an essential public service, Koskinen said.
“The challenge for the IRS is it’s a very mission-driven agency,” he said.
—With assistance from Kaustuv Basu.