Union seeks to boost IRS employees’ spirits

Group urges lawmakers to write letters of support in the wake of the February plane attack that has left many tax workers shaken.

A union is enlisting lawmakers' help in an effort to improve the morale of Internal Revenue Service workers still reeling from the mid-February airplane attack that burned a Texas office to the ground and killed one employee.

The National Treasury Employees Union has asked lawmakers to supplement an early March House resolution condemning the Austin attack with letters expressing their support for the IRS workforce.

"In the wake of this tragic attack on federal employees and some very irresponsible comments reported in the media, NTEU would like to invite you to show your support for front-line government workers across the nation," the union wrote in a statement it is encouraging its members to give to their representatives. "Federal employees are dedicated and committed to our country and right now they need a strong show of support in the face of this senseless act that claimed the life of one of their own."

NTEU will collect the messages and share them with employees, including those in the Austin office, who returned to work on March 8 for the first time since a software engineer apparently angry with the U.S. Tax Code flew a plane into their building. The employees are working from two temporary locations, and many remain shaken by the incident, union officials said during a three-day legislative conference in Washington this week.

"Federal employees feel very insecure because of the safety issue," said Trish Kelley, a 30-year IRS employee who was at the conference. Kelley works in Austin, but not in the building targeted in the attack.

President Obama expressed his support. "We are grateful to these employees for their dedication to enforcing laws and managing important programs that help all Americans," he wrote in a March 9 letter to NTEU President Colleen Kelley.

IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman also sought to boost morale, with an internal communication. "While we all know that some people will unfairly criticize the IRS, I want you to know that there are many people who support and honor you," he said.

Reaction on Capitol Hill, however, has been mixed. The House overwhelmingly passed a March 3 resolution commending IRS employees for their service and rejecting "any statement or act that deliberately fans the flames of hatred or expresses sympathy" for the pilot.

But two members -- Reps. Ron Paul, R-Texas, whose congressional district is adjacent to Austin, and Don Young, R-Alaska -- voted against the resolution, and Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said on Feb. 22 during a conservative conference in Washington that "if we had abolished the IRS back when I first advocated it, he wouldn't have a target for his airplane." NTEU denounced King's comment as showing a lack of respect for federal employees.

The union expects letters from individual lawmakers would mitigate the damage from some of the less supportive statements. IRS employees often feel like possible targets because of the nature of their work and their public face, Trish Kelley said.

"Most IRS buildings are in public places," said Jim Littlejohn, an IRS employee and NTEU worker from Dallas, who also attended the Washington legislative conference.

"We're in [law] enforcement, but we are not gun-carrying," Trish Kelley noted.

IRS employees also said during NTEU's legislative conference they worried the attack would scare away job applicants. But while one recent candidate withdrew his application for a position at the office, a batch of new hires all showed up to work after the incident, Trish Kelley said.

"They're as dedicated as ever," Colleen Kelley said.

Littlejohn added: "It takes a special type of person to work at the IRS."

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