Treasury, IRS set 50% return-to-office target for employees to meet ‘governmentwide’ standard

The Treasury Department and the IRS are calling on teleworking employees to return to the office for half of their workdays, starting in a few months.

The Treasury Department and the IRS are calling on teleworking employees to return to the office for half of their workdays, starting in a few months.

IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel told employees in an email Thursday that teleworking employees will need to return to the office 50% of the time, on any given month, starting on May 5.

“Our top priority, regardless of where employees are located at any point in time, will continue to be meeting our goals of serving taxpayers, ensuring tax compliance and maintaining our vital technology and operations,” Werfel wrote.

The return-to-office plans will only impact IRS executives, managers and non-bargaining unit employees with telework agreements in the National Capital Region. The decision affects IRS headquarters, the agency’s New Carrollton Federal Building and other offices in the Washington, D.C. area.

“This means other parts of the country are not affected by the changes announced today,” Werfel wrote.

Werfel told IRS employees in his all-staff email, as well as House lawmakers that the agency’s workforce is, for the most part, already meeting a 50% in-office goal set governmentwide by the Office of Management and Budget.

“Overall, the IRS is roughly in line with the governmentwide standard of 50%,” Werfel told the House Ways and Means Committee in a hearing Thursday.

The email states IRS and Treasury are focusing their return-to-office plans on the greater Washington metro area, because the city is home to the IRS headquarters, a high concentration of IRS leadership, as well as “senior professionals that play a central role in policy decisions.”

“As new employees enter the IRS, it’s even more important for senior staff to be in the office to help share institutional knowledge with team members and ensure continuity for the next generation of IRS staff,” Werfel wrote.

Werfel sent his email to IRS employees shortly after Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo sent an email to employees across the department, including the IRS, setting a 50% “on site” target for the workforce.

“The new directive from Treasury sets a clear expectation that federal agencies will trend toward more on-site work moving forward. Ultimately, to ensure ongoing alignment with the 50% on-site mandate for teleworkers, we need to take the necessary steps to increase our trend toward more on-site work,” Werfel wrote.

Werfel said IRS employees who are part of the agency’s remote work pilot project, which runs through June, are not affected by the announcement. Employees with reasonable accommodation agreements are also not affected.

“In recent days, we have taken a close look at this situation, which we know will present challenges for some employees. We understand these concerns, and we worked to minimize the impact of this and provide flexibilities wherever possible while still meeting the directive under the new governmentwide mandate,” he wrote.

Werfel said the IRS will discuss any potential changes for bargaining unit employees with the National Treasury Employees, but said bargaining unit employees “are not immediately affected by today’s announcement.”

“For bargaining unit employees, any changes from our current status will only occur with direct consultation and engagement with NTEU leadership,” he wrote.

NTEU National President Doreen Greenwald said in a statement that Treasury’s return to office plan “doubles down on unwise guidance from the Office of Management and Budget that demands more in-office days without compelling data or justification.”

“We question why the Treasury Department would set new, arbitrary limits on a program with a record of success dating back well before the pandemic,” Greenwald said.

“Now is not a time to reduce the benefits that attract employees to work for the federal government. We have seen the benefits of telework for decades at the IRS both in recruiting and on the well-documented customer service and enforcement improvements of the last year, she added.

While NTEU agreed with Werfel’s decision to limit the number of employees affected by the Treasury directive, Greenwald said that “even with these limits, the Treasury Directive will severely harm the IRS’ ability to fill necessary vacancies and retain skilled employees forcing some to apply elsewhere or retire.”

“NTEU strongly opposes this baseless effort to reduce telework because it will make it even harder for all Treasury components to attract and retain the skilled employees they need,” she said.

Treasury’s own telework assessment it provided to Congress a few months ago “found no evidence that telework created a negative impact on retention, recruitment, or organizational performance.”

The report also found that since the pandemic, job announcements highlighting work flexibilities, such as telework, attracted the largest volume of applications. The report found remote jobs yielded the most hires, and that retention and engagement scores have remained stable.

In the 2022 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, nearly one out of four Treasury employees said they are looking to leave the department, “based on undesirable telework arrangements.”

“Those that are looking to leave have lower engagement scores,” the report states.

Werfel told employees that nearly 50% of nearly every hour worked at the IRS is already done on-site.

He also said as much to members of the House Ways and Means Committee, during a nearly four-hour hearing on Thursday.

“There is a governmentwide standard out there, in terms of where we stand today — what should be the percentage of in-office work, versus remote work. The IRS is generally consistent with that governmentwide standard, but we’re constantly evaluating any steps that we can take,” he told lawmakers.

Republicans on the committee, however, raised concerns about the productivity of IRS employees working from home.

“I would contend, respectfully, that not having employees in the office and having them work remotely presents challenges, not only to your agency but to the people that have to interact with it,” Rep. David Kustoff (R-Tenn.) told Werfel.

Werfel said that IRS Taxpayers Assistance Centers offering free, walk-in tax help to the public are “fully staffed, five days a week,” and that IRS employees are on-site handling work that can’t be done from home.

“You’re all invited to come to one of our campus locations, and you’ll see those campuses teaming with employees that are opening envelopes, and doing other things to manage the tax system,” he said. “Those individuals have to be on-site, and they are on-site.”

Rep. Ron Estes (R-Kan.) raised concerns about the security of IRS employees working from home, especially when they have access to sensitive taxpayer information.

“How can somebody in a remote location be handing those tax returns? That just seems to me that it’s not doing the job that needs to be done to help service American constituents,” Estes said.

Werfel said “certain employees, depending on the need” have access to taxpayer information while working from home.

“There are steps that you can take to ensure appropriate security steps, whether the employee is in a SCIF, in a non-SCIF or remote, and we have to make sure we’re securing, because there may be situations, whether it’s a weather event otherwise — a pandemic — where we have to ensure the right level of security, regardless of where the employee is,” he said.

Lawmakers are raising these security concerns after a former IRS contractor received a five-year prison sentence for disclosing thousands of tax returns — including tax returns belonging to former President Donald Trump — to the news media.

Werfel told lawmakers has tightened its information security following that breach, and that IRS employees face “significant consequences” if they don’t meet their responsibility to protect taxpayer information.

“Therefore, virtually all IRS employees are very rigid in how taxpayer information is handed, whether it’s handled on their computer screen, in a remote location or on an IRS site,” he said.


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