Move comes as tax filing deadline approaches and thousands have been home with pay but not working.
The Internal Revenue Service is recalling 10,000 employees back to their offices to perform “mission-critical work,” though the employees will be on their own to obtain supplies to protect against the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The agency is bringing employees back from quarantine starting Monday as it prepares for the adjusted 2020 tax filing deadline of July 15. IRS will ask workers to come back on a voluntary basis with incentive pay, though it will subsequently require additional employees to return if a sufficient number of volunteers do not come forward. The employees will correspond with taxpayers, process tax documents, talk to taxpayers over the phone and perform other filing season duties, according to the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents the IRS workforce.
In an email sent to employees on Friday made public by the House Ways and Means Committee, the IRS human capital office said it does not have sufficient personal protective equipment for employees.
“Although the IRS is seeking to procure PPE such as masks and gloves, each IRS facility may not be able to initially procure the PPE for all employees immediately,” it said. “Employees are therefore required to bring personal face coverings for their nose and mouth area when they come to work.”
The email added that employees will permitted to remove their masks while they are in a cubicle or private office during the work day, but must wear them in common areas. One hundred IRS employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and four have died from coronavirus symptoms, according to figures lawmakers received from the agency.
IRS said in a statement protecting its employees is its top priority and it will do everything possible to keep them safe while also providing important services to taxpayers.
“Bringing employees back to work is essential to address mission-critical needs for the nation, and the IRS is an essential component to our country’s whole-of-government approach to confronting the COVID-19 pandemic,” the agency said. “To provide American taxpayers, including the most vulnerable, with the services they expect, it is essential that the IRS resumes a number of key responsibilities.”
The 10,000 recalled employees will come from 10 different offices, NTEU President Tony Reardon said. Thousands of IRS employees have been home on paid administrative leave without working for weeks as the agency closed many offices around the country following state stay-at-home orders and an agency-wide evacuation order. Many of those workers remain sidelined, as they still do not have telework capacity.
One employee who works at a call center in Pittsburgh told Government Executive he has been home since March 20, receiving his normal pay but not working. He volunteered to work remotely but the agency has yet to take him up on that offer. He will not be going back on recall, he said, noting Pennsylvania’s stay home order remains in effect through at least May 8. Instead, he has been working on projects around the house and trying to get outside.
“There’s always cleaning to do, and then I’m a big hiker,” he said.
NTEU, meanwhile, is working with IRS to ensure the agency provides employees with the materials and equipment they need to stay safe.
“We are communicating with the IRS about working conditions at those facilities to make sure there are adequate cleaning and disinfecting supplies, accommodations to allow for physical distancing among employees and personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves,” Reardon said.
Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who chairs its panel on oversight, sharply criticized IRS for requiring employees to return to their offices without first securing PPE.
“It is understandable that in carrying out its mission during a crisis, the agency would require some employees to report back to work during perilous times,” they said. “However, it is completely irresponsible and unethical for the IRS to demand those workers obtain their own protective equipment—this is the responsibility of the federal government to its workers.”
IRS is asking employees to risk their health and that of their families, the lawmakers said.
Employees who are able to telework will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, NTEU said. The Trump administration released guidance last week instructing agencies to prepare to return employees to their offices, but cautioned they should follow the guidance of local leaders. Agencies are expected to continue allowing telework flexibilities even after they begin bringing some workers back to their offices.
“Because of the global health crisis, thousands of IRS employees are successfully teleworking,” Reardon said. “There are no immediate plans to pull them from the safety of their homes and NTEU believes they should remain on telework until all state and local stay-at-home orders are lifted and health and safety precautions have been met.”
IRS did not respond by early Monday afternoon to an inquiry into the size of the incentive pay employees will receive or when it will be able to provide protective gear.