Employees Raise Concerns as IRS Recalls Staff From Home Ahead of Tax Season
IRS is no longer allowing at-risk workers to take safety leave rather than report to their offices.
The Internal Revenue Service is again recalling a group of employees back to the office as it gears up for tax season, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a chorus of concerns from workers.
The return to in-person workstations has some employees nervous as those who had spent months at home will now face the potentially risky environment of a congregate setting with colleagues. IRS said it has implemented an array of safety measures to ensure the novel coronavirus does not spread within its workforce, but employees and their representatives said those steps have been insufficient.
The agency also brought back thousands of staffers in April and May of last year in anticipation of the 2020 tax return deadline, which was pushed back to July 15 as a result of the pandemic. IRS faced criticism at that time—even as 56,000 agency employees remained on telework in June—for failing to provide employees with personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves. The new round of recalls, which began Feb. 1, will add to the total number of employees who returned to their offices since the pandemic began.
The move from IRS comes despite an executive order President Biden signed in his first days in office requiring federal agencies to keep employees safe through distancing and masking policies. He called for a national testing plan for federal employees and a task force to develop policies related to maximizing telework, prioritizing feds for vaccination and revamping federal offices according to the latest health standards. IRS has not announced any plans to help its employees receive vaccinations.
Biden’s order also mandated that all individuals wear masks when in federal buildings, but current IRS policy requires employees to wear a mask only in common areas and not when in their own cubicles. The agency told its workers that “an employee who fails to adhere to the requirements in the memo may be required to return home until such time as the employee adheres to these requirements.” Cherie Gilmore, a manager in Ogden, Utah, said that is not being enforced, and leadership is telling supervisors like her to “have a conversation” with the offending individual but not take any disciplinary action.
“We know we are walking into a petri dish every day,” Gilmore said, “but we feel a responsibility to the taxpayers so we continue to risk it.” She added that physical distancing is “impossible to maintain,” even as employees decline to wear masks or to do so properly.
IRS is targeting for recall employees who had been on administrative leave due to safety concerns over their risks of severe illness if they contracted COVID-19. Gilmore, for example, was on paid “safety leave” for 10 weeks late last summer, which required a doctor’s note demonstrating her risk. She eventually returned to help her colleagues tackle a growing backlog of cases. Employees are no longer eligible for such leave. As of January 30, 65,000 employees were teleworking full or part time and 27,500 reported to an IRS facility full or part time.
“This is our busiest time of the year,” said Sarah Maxwell, an IRS spokesperson. “In light of that, the IRS is taking another critical step to help taxpayers.” She explained the agency is recalling employees who have been eligible for administrative leave since March 2020.
“The decision to recall these employees was made after extensive discussions on the need to balance serving taxpayers and ensuring employees’ safety in the workplace,” Maxwell said. “The IRS remains committed to taking all appropriate workplace precautions.”
The recall efforts will help IRS process tax returns and refunds, she said, and distribute stimulus payments. IRS pledged to monitor the situation and is following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to “clean and disinfect socially distanced” agency workspaces.
The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents most IRS employees, called on the agency to more strictly enforce its mask policy, provide appropriate personal protective equipment and ensure physical distancing between workers.
“Recalls have heightened the anxiety level of employees and understandably increased the need for health and safety protocols in the workplace,” said NTEU President Tony Reardon. “There remain serious concerns about the safety of employees who must report to their work sites.”
The union criticized IRS for ending its safety leave for at-risk employees policy, saying those workers should be allowed to telework when possible and take administrative time off when they are not. The agency should also have a more robust policy of allowing employees to take administrative leave when they or someone they are in close contact with test positive for COVID-19, NTEU said, noting there are currently “too many instances” of staff reporting to the office when it is not safe for them to be there because they do not have enough personal leave and cannot afford to take unpaid time off. NTEU called on IRS to also allow employees to take administrative leave to get vaccinated and to secure a supply of vaccines for all workers who must report to their offices.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., is pushing that goal across government, introducing the Chai Suthammanont Remembrance Act on Thursday that would require agencies to publicly post a plan for recalling employees to the office 30 days before they do so. Part of that plan would include how the agency will help employees get vaccinated and a policy to either require employees to receive an inoculation before returning to the office or give them the ability to take administrative leave to do so. Agencies would have to detail how they would make their workplaces safe—such as through testing and contact tracing—and what contingencies they would have in place for particularly vulnerable workers. The legislation would require agency inspectors general to ensure enforcement of the plans.
NTEU, the American Federation of Government Employees and other unions and good government groups endorsed the measure. The House last year passed a similar version of the bill, which is named after a federal employee in Virginia who died of complications from the coronavirus in May, but it never received a vote in the Senate.
Correction: This story has been corrected to say that the recalled workers had been home and not working, rather than teleworking.
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