‘Mixed reaction’ from IRS employees reporting back to work amid filing season

The IRS processed “several million” tax returns on Monday in the opening hours of the tax filing season, but the effects of a 35-day partial government shutdown that ended Friday still leave open questions about the agency’s readiness.

Monday also marked the first day back on the job for nearly half of the agency’s workforce. One IRS employee, who requested anonymity to speak on the matter, described a “mixed reaction” from coworkers who returned to their jobs.

The IRS notified employees they would get paid Thursday for the two pay periods they missed during the shutdown, the agency employee wrote in an email.

Coworkers were “much more upbeat” than they were in previous weeks compared to when more than 46,000 excepted employees had to work without pay to help prepare for the upcoming filing season, the employee said.

As for the backlog in work that awaited IRS staff, the agency employee observed little complaining from coworkers, adding that the agency has been “understaffed for quite a while and backlogs are somewhat a norm.”

“Most managers told their employees to spend some startup time to plow through an overloaded email inbox and to test to assure access and passwords for systems,” the employee wrote.

Jenny Brown, president of National Treasury Employees Union chapter 67, based in Ogden, Utah, said employees remain concerned about the looming threat of another shutdown if President Donald Trump and lawmakers don’t reach a spending agreement within three weeks.

“Our hope is that during this three weeks there will be a budget signed and that we can stay focused on the work,” Brown said in an email Monday.

The current continuing resolution Trump signed Friday funds previously shuttered agencies until Feb. 15.

Congress also established a bipartisan committee of House and Senate lawmakers to consider 2019 appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security, including spending on border security. However, Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday that the joint committee’s chances of reaching a budget deal he’d sign are “less than 50-50.”

The IRS expects more than 150 million tax returns will be filed during this tax filing season, with the vast majority coming before the April 15 deadline. The agency began this year’s filing season one day earlier than the previous year’s, despite the shutdown and major tax law changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in a statement Monday that the IRS will do everything it can to ensure a smooth filing season.

“I am extremely proud of the entire IRS workforce. The dedicated IRS employees have worked tirelessly to successfully implement the biggest tax law changes in 30 years and launch tax season for the nation,” Rettig said. “Although we face various near- and longer-term challenges, our employees are committed to doing everything we can to help taxpayers and get refunds out quickly.”

However, it remains uncertain how the agency will make up for lost time during the shutdown, including training that was postponed for temporary employees originally scheduled for early January.

The Congressional Budget Office on Monday projected the 35-day shutdown prevented the IRS’s tax enforcement division from collecting more than $2 billion in federal revenue.

The Washington Post reported Saturday that the National Taxpayer Advocate Service, had notified House staffers that it would probably take at least a year for the IRS to resume normal operations because of the shutdown.

A House staffer official confirmed Monday his committee had “heard those concerns” in a briefing by National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson.

A spokesman for the National Taxpayer Advocate on Monday said the office aims to release its annual report within the next two weeks, and added that the report “likely will include some discussion of the impact of the shutdown.”

The IRS expects the first refund checks to go out in the first week of February, and estimates nearly 90 percent of returns will be filed online. About 70 percent of taxpayers are eligible for IRS Free File online.

Citing a higher-than-usual call volume during the early weeks of the filing season, the IRS urges taxpayers to check IRS.gov before trying to reach an agency hotline.

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