Union works out game plan for fighting IRS layoffs

The National Treasury Employees Union is ironing out an aggressive strategy for helping its members weather a recently announced Internal Revenue Service overhaul, and is seeking help from Capitol Hill, the union's leader said Friday.

Within the next month, NTEU will issue an official response to the restructuring plan announced by IRS officials last week, touching off a "very hard" bargaining process, said Colleen Kelley, NTEU president. The union will argue that the IRS lacks a strong business case for closing its Memphis, Tenn., tax return processing facility and consolidating collections and insolvency casework, she said.

IRS officials have said that by closing the Memphis returns facility and consolidating other administrative work, the agency could free up resources to hire as many as 2,200 investigators. An increase in electronic tax filing will allow the IRS to shift resources to enforcement without compromising customer service, agency officials said.

But Kelley argued that this decision is premature because the IRS is not sure that electronic filing will continue to increase at the rate projected. NTEU used General Accounting Office research to bolster this argument. The watchdog agency issued a May 2003 report concluding that only 61 percent of individual taxpayers will file returns electronically by 2007, nearly 20 percentage points below the IRS' goal for online returns.

Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn., will ask GAO to update its projections. Ford also announced that, if necessary, he would introduce legislation to prevent the IRS from closing the Memphis facility.

"U.S. taxpayers have made substantial investments in the Memphis facility, and the IRS should leverage these investments," Ford said in a statement. "A more thorough review is needed [before closing the facility]."

Should these approaches fail, NTEU is prepared to ensure that the IRS at least offers employees whose jobs are at risk the opportunity to train for alternate positions, Kelley said. Employees at the Memphis tax return processing facility will likely be the easiest to place in new IRS jobs, because the agency has other facilities nearby that will remain open, she explained.

Case processing accounts for about a third of the work on a broader Memphis "campus," Kelley said. The IRS does not plan to close down other offices on the Memphis campus, meaning that some employees currently at the returns processing facility could qualify for technology, customer service or other Memphis jobs after some additional training.

As many as 2,400 IRS workers could lose their jobs in 2005 as a result of the overhaul. "I can tell you they won't all be placed," Kelley cautioned.

Collections and insolvency caseworkers will have a harder time weathering the restructuring, Kelley predicted. The IRS plans to shift caseworkers in 92 locations to four offices in 2005. Many workers would have to move to another part of the country to retain their jobs, she noted.

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