Empowered with new flexibilities, IRS managers hesitant to act on telework guidance

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The coronavirus pandemic has — no doubt — created unprecedented challenges for the federal government.

For large swaths of the IRS workforce and lower-level management, it’s given them something else they’ve rarely encountered before: freedom.

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“Until further notice, all front-line IRS field compliance employees, as well as customer service employees with face-to-face interaction with taxpayers, will have the option (as determined by the employee) of avoiding all in-person taxpayer contacts by any reasonable means,” IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said Friday night in an email to employees.

Subject to their manager’s approval, IRS employees can choose to limit in-person contacts between now and April 30. These decisions will be approved at the local level, the agency said.

Employees in areas heavily impacted by the coronavirus, such as Seattle and New York, should immediately stop in-person taxpayer contacts, the IRS said.

“The senior leadership team and I know first-hand we need to do more to help you,” Rettig said. “We see it and we share the same uncertainty as you. I’m directly in contact with numerous front-line IRS employees on a regular basis as well as leadership for substantially all other federal agencies with daily calls for up to two hours solely devoted to COVID-19 and workforce issues. Despite what you may not see first hand, please be assured we are doing everything we can for you. The well-being of the entire IRS community remains our top priority.”

Empowering employees to choose — with their manager’s permission— whether they want to continue face-to-face interactions gives the IRS workforce unprecedented freedom.

That freedom has sparked confusion with risk-adverse IRS managers, many of whom are accustomed to being told what to do, said Chad Hooper, president of the Professional Managers Association, which represents supervisors at the agency.

“[We’ve] never in our careers been in a situation where employees have been empowered to that extent,” he said in an interview. “In our offices — in our walk-in offices especially — we’re seeing this week a lot of confusion around what the walk-in office should be doing. Is it open to the public? What if it’s an office with one or two staff and neither of them feel comfortable, does that mean the office is closed and for what duration?”

Taxpayer assistance centers (TACs) are still open, but managers recently learned they’d open with limited services, Hooper said.

Meanwhile, Hooper said he’s heard from IRS frontline employees whose managers are resisting their requests to avoid in-person contacts — in spite of Rettig’s recent guidance.

“Field assistance managers especially are accustomed to a very rigid, top-down micro-management over site structure,” he said. “Unless their director specifically states this is what you’re going to do, those managers are always going to resist an employee’s desire to keep themselves safe and avoid interacting with the public.

Managers still tentative to approve full time telework

Rettig also instructed senior IRS leaders to immediately begin maximizing telework for all eligible employees.

“If you are able to telework, please take your computers and chargers home and telework to the extent possible,” he said. “There may be situations where in-office work is required or there is need to go to the office, for example, to pick up mail.”

Employees who are eligible for telework but haven’t taken formal steps to begin using it should do so immediately, the IRS said.

Managers should also approve telework for employees who have children at home due to a coronavirus-school closure, Rettig said.

As the agency acknowledged, not all employees are eligible for telework. The IRS is exploring other options to allow more employees to work remotely, Rettig said.

Beyond telework, the IRS has instructed managers to “be flexible in approving leave requests,” especially for employees who have said they’re at a higher risk for the coronavirus. Managers can and should grant weather and safety leave to high-risk employees who feel uncomfortable safely traveling to the office.

But Hooper said some managers have interpreted Rettig’s guidance to mean employees are entitled “frequent telework,” which would mean they’d only have to come into the office two days a pay period.

“That’s not at all what the message was,” Hooper said.

He emphasized: Rettig’s message to the workforce was “correct,” as well as “concise, reasonable and even-handed.” But it wasn’t clear enough, especially for supervisors who must seek approval from higher-level management.

“There are a lot of managers who can’t even approve a leave request without going to their next level to be sure it’s okay,” Hooper said. “If you’re not going to empower them to make decisions year-round, then at this time of crisis to say a frontline manager should do the right thing, it’s never going to get a consistent result. No one has ever had permission to do anything.”

Perhaps it’s why all agencies, despite multiple pieces of guidance from the Trump administration, have been slow to order telework and take preventative actions for their workforces during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Civil servants have a tendency to be hesitant to make their own decisions,” Hooper said. “For our commissioner not coming from the federal space, he may be learning that making a suggestion or emphasizing empowering front line employees may work very well in the private sector. But in the civil service IRS managers need more explicit direction.”

All the confusion and uncertainty comes as the IRS is knee-deep in the 2020 tax filing.

Rettig praised the IRS workforce for their work to date; employees have processed more than 65 million tax returns and issued more than 57 million refunds worth nearly $158 billion, he said.

The agency will likely take on additional responsibilities in the coming weeks, Rettig added. Congress is expected to pass an economic relief package, which could include small business tax credits and payroll tax cuts, among other proposals.

“We will be called to deliver important tax relief to the nation in the days ahead,” he said. “This relief will be critical to the well-being of our nation’s taxpayers. I look to you to continue to work together to help our great nation in a time of need.”

But the prospects of adding more to the IRS workload — which Hooper said is already stretched thin — is concerning, he said.

“I don’t think that the public and the Congress fully appreciate that the tax system is run on Windows 7 desktop computers, for the most part. That ties employees to their desks,” Hooper said. “The IRS is so far behind — for a lack of funds —not because of a lack of desire, or energy or talent. It is merely a lack of funds that is all that stands between us and being able to have a fully functioning tax apparatus that can work from home in an emergency.”