This story was updated Tuesday, April 28 at 12:51 p.m. to include new statements from the Professional Managers Association and the National Treasury Employees Union.
The IRS had 10,000 employees return to their offices on Monday, according to the National Treasury Employees Union and an all-hands email the agency’s human capital office sent last Friday afternoon.
The House Ways and Means Committee, which obtained and circulated the email, said the agency brought back certain employees to answer phones, process mail and other “mission-critical work” they can’t complete while teleworking.
The email, sent by IRS Human Capital Officer Robin Bailey and Deputy Human Capital Officer Kevin McIver, also requires recalled employees to report to work with their own protective gear.
“Although the IRS is seeking to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves, each IRS facility may not be able to initially procure the PPE for all employees immediately,” Bailey and McIver wrote. “Employees are therefore required to bring personal face coverings for their nose and mouth area when they come to work.”
NTEU President Tony Reardon said this “initial wave” of bringing IRS employees back to the office will impact the agency’s 10 campus locations. Those employees, he added, will open mail from taxpayers, handle tax documents, take calls from taxpayers seeking assistance and perform other functions related to the tax filing season.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the IRS has pushed this year’s tax filing season deadline back to July 15.
The Professional Managers Association, which represents IRS managers, said Tuesday that the facilities employees returned to received “tens of millions” of pieces of unopened mail that included payments, tax returns, identity theft claims, and letters requesting assistance.
PMA President Chad Hooper said that the backlog of identity theft claims in the mail means “the IRS is unable to be certain those taxpayers received or will receive their CARES Act stimulus payment.”
“Without the employees being called to serve, customer service operations would remain unmanned, mail rooms would become stockpiles for backlogged taxpayer issues, and fraudsters seeking to take advantage of COVID-19 chaos may succeed,” Hooper said in a statement. “The question is not if employees should return to do this work, it is determining the safest method for their return to take place.”
Reardon said Tuesday that the IRS has enough masks at each site for employees who didn’t bring their own. The agency also told NTEU that the “numbers of returning employees relative to the size of these worksites allows proper physical distancing.”
“The agency says cleaning of common areas is increased along with high-touch points, something employees are watching carefully,” Reardon said. “There remains a fear among employees that by returning to these worksites their health is at risk along with that of their families, so they are cautious in their return. All those reporting to IRS facilities this week are volunteers stepping up to get critical work done.”
Hooper said IRS employees who volunteered to return to work will receive retention pay for at least two pay periods, “with increased pay based on the risk level of their role.”
“This is critical for incentivizing able employees to return to their offices and work in unprecedented conditions to serve the taxpayer,” he said.
By requesting volunteers before requiring employees to return to the office, Hooper said the IRS has taken steps to ensure that only those who consider themselves “most able, [at] low-risk of infection, eager to work, and, likely, able to access PPE” will come back into work.
So far, at least 44% of the IRS workforce has been teleworking after the agency issued an evacuation notice last month. The IRS has yet to provide a breakdown of how many continue to work out of the office, which the evacuation order permits, and how many are out on weather and safety leave.
“Because of the global health crisis, thousands of IRS employees are successfully teleworking. There are no immediate plans to pull them from the safety of their homes and NTEU believes they should remain on telework until all state and local stay-at-home orders are lifted and health and safety precautions have been met,” Reardon said.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and oversight subcommittee chairman John Lewis (D-Ga.) said on Saturday the decision was “especially troubling,” since IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig told congressional staff last week that 100 agency employees had contracted the coronavirus, and four had died.
The lawmakers said the IRS shouldn’t send essential employees back to work until they have acquired enough PPE for them.
“It is understandable that in carrying out its mission during a crisis, the agency would require some employees to report back to work during perilous times. However, 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,” they wrote in a statement.
In the meantime, the IRS will require employees to bring personal face coverings for their nose and mouth. The agency links to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to make a mask from a t-shirt or a bandana.
“Materials used to create the covering must be conducive to a professional work environment and not contain any images or text that may be deemed inappropriate or offensive to others,” the all-hands email states.
Employees that work in a private or walled cubicle can remove their face covering while working at their desk. However, the email says employees must wear masks when in common areas that include walkways, elevators, staircases bathroom and cafeterias, as well as when they enter and leave the building.
“An employee who fails to adhere to the requirements in the memo may be required to return home until such time the employee adheres to these requirements,” the email states. “Please remember, the intent of this requirement is to ensure the health and safety of all our employees and their families.”
The IRS has also relaxed its collections and enforcement activity, as taxpayers face financial hardship from the pandemic.
The agency will suspend liens and levies for most delinquent taxpayers between April 1 and July 15, and won’t refer new cases to its private debt collectors.
The IRS also encourages taxpayers behind on their tax filings to catch up. More than a million households that haven’t filed tax returns in the last three years are actually owed refunds, and can still claim these refunds.