How IRS line employees and managers are dealing with a second filing season under pandemic

One thing you can say about working for the IRS, it's been exciting. Now the agency's Professional Managers Association has a new roster of leadership to take o...

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One thing you can say about working for the IRS, it’s been exciting. Now the agency’s Professional Managers Association has a new roster of leadership to take on a second filing season weirded out by the pandemic. The association’s new executive director, Chad Hooper, joined the Federal Drive with a look ahead.

Tom Temin: Chad, good to have you back.

Chad Hooper: Thank you, Tom. It’s wonderful to be back. Thank you.

Tom Temin: And now you are an association guy instead of an IRS guy, technically, right?

Chad Hooper: That’s true. Yeah. changed my stripes just at the very end of 2020.

Tom Temin: All right, let’s talk about the IRS. Because we are in the midst of a filing season now that still people are teleworking, and the paper is coming in from the people that still send in paper. So what’s your sense of how they’re handling it this year?

Chad Hooper: Our Commissioner worked really hard to be proactive here and keep people home, as long as we could, they did call back the rest of the folks who have — we call them — non portable duties, they have to be in the office to process these tax returns. So we asked for all of those employees to come back at the beginning of February. They gave us a couple of weeks to train them on any changes, show them how the social distancing is working. And the work processes are more spread out now, in order to have as normal a filing season as we can for this year.

Tom Temin: So you’ve got the processing centers around the country. And then I guess most of the operational work is New Carrollton in the DC area, fair to say?

Chad Hooper: Yeah, we’ve got four processing centers, and then there’s about 20 large call sites throughout the nation. That’s where you’d find the bulk of the in-person staff right now spread thinly throughout the country, here and there. We also have some customer service folks that work in person. So those offices are functioning on appointment, also to accommodate taxpayers who have questions, things like that.

Tom Temin: And looking back, of course, the IRS had the CARES Act duties to get checks out to many, many people, which seems somewhat alligned with what it does every year, but also something of a new task for the IRS. And they got pretty good marks for getting it, mostly right, considering the data challenges that they had been facing. So what’s your sense of the next time around?

Chad Hooper: I think that fortunately/unfortunately, because we had that experience in the spring, and now we have those processes built out, and those folks are skilled up to do subsequent rounds of stimulus — and my caveat always is so long as Congress doesn’t tinker very much with eligibility — it’s very simple for the IRS to reprogram to issue subsequent stimulus payments. The eligibility question comes into play because then that makes it more complicated. If we have a stimulus round that’s different from the other two, this is sort of like a different tax law. And then it makes talking to the taxpayers complicated because we have to parse which round of EIP are you talking about if you have an issue and things like that. So we do hope that the Congress will take tax administration into consideration when crafting these sorts of economic stimulus bills.

Tom Temin: Because the agency has been getting fairly decent marks from the National Taxpayer Advocate. She said that she acknowledges the tremendous job the IRS has done under constraints and so on. So sounds like maybe the tunnel light is close, isn’t it?

Chad Hooper: It feels that way. We certainly have a lot of hope in the service, particularly as the rest of the country too, we get hopeful about vaccines for our employees and things like that, where later in the year, maybe even in late summer, things might be able to return to a bit of normalcy. And we can really work to catch up. What has suffered I think during this time is some of the IRS’ correspondence response times, because those require a bit more care and attention. Each individual letter from a taxpayer is unique. And so we do hope that we can administer a successful filing season and catch up that backlog of correspondence to at least pre-pandemic levels.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Chad Hooper. He’s executive director of the Professional Managers Association representing people at the IRS. And how would you characterize relations between top management and the professional managers, and between the professional managers and the line folks, the NTEU types of people at the IRS these days.

Chad Hooper: I’ve really enjoyed building out our relationship with the IRS. I feel like we’re closer than ever. We had some great interactions with our Commissioner last year, and we’ve been participating and helping to support the IRS to our consultative relationship in its COVID response we meet each week with the IRS’ COVID response team to bring issues up from the front to the headquarters attention and to take news back and to find other ways where our advocacy on the Hill might help our managers, our members and our agency. And our relationship with NTEU, of course, between management and the bargaining unit is always a little bit of a space, I want to say. We do have a close relationship with them though, we have a lot of the same objectives in our work particularly around good government and how employees are treated. And so I feel like they’re a natural partner and we in PMA are working hard to make further inroads within NTEU where we overlap.

Tom Temin: And getting back to that list put together, the most recent list from the tax payer advocate, telephone in person service, online records access, digital communications, those types of things she mentioned last year linger and what’s your sense of improvement, especially in people getting their questions answered and reaching someone on the phone in a timely manner and all of those things.

Chad Hooper: So these are core IRS challenges. The issue of online accounts actually goes all the way back to 1998. Unfortunately, and I guess this happens quite a bit, the Congress gave IRS a mandate and did not fund or support the agency appropriately. We’re really happy to hear what’s coming out of the top of the IRS and out of Treasury, when they go before Ways and Means to talk about the IRS has importance to the government and our need for multi-year budgeting. It’s impossible to upgrade a 58 year old computer system in one government fiscal year at the risk of the changing political winds. We do need a stable modernization budget to realize all of those objectives. I have to give the IRS a ton of credit, though, what they’ve been able to do with what little they’ve been given during the last 10 years even has been incredible. And so I am excited to see online accounts continue to expand. And I hope that the Congress will fund the IRS appropriately so that we can invest in tools that make those accounts very safe and allows the IRS to open that access up to all taxpayers.

Tom Temin: And I might be misreading the tea leaves. But it seems like Chuck Rettig is about the only person from the Trump administration that the current crew doesn’t have their big guns out to get rid of.

Chad Hooper: He’s a very popular Commissioner. It’s actually very refreshing to work with a commissioner who came from the tax world. We’ve been led by people from private business for a very long time. And to have a tax attorney and a successful partner at a tax firm from the other coast come and lead the agency is a fresh perspective and to see how much he cares about practitioners, their clients, our tax payers and our employees, it’s actually been a very big change culturally. I can hear it even in my calls with other executives, the amount of time that they spend focused on employee safety and morale and a myriad of other issues that all large organizations are facing, hearing that change in emphasis is a tone from the top 100%. We really are very pleased with Commissioner Rettig’s work inside of the agency.

Tom Temin: Sounds like maybe some of those recruitment and retention issues — again, long standing — could be maybe mitigated then with that kind of leadership.

Chad Hooper: It absolutely could. It’s a hot topic and in most of our meetings lately. The IRS is well aware that it has an issue as does the rest of the civil service in recruiting new folks to join up. There’s been a hyper politicization of the civil service. It’s very easy to use the civil service as a punching bag. And surely there are a lot of reforms that would make the civil service more effective that the Congress could take up and that [the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget] could take up but as the IRS improves and it becomes easier to talk about what a great place it is to work and how important its mission is. I think that new recruits follow pretty naturally from that messaging.

Tom Temin: Chad Hooper is executive director of the Professional Managers Association representing people of the IRS. Thanks so much for joining me.

Chad Hooper: Thank you, Tom.

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