Agency faces major logistical challenges after massive stimulus package, but union says tens of thousands of employees cannot work remotely.
As the Internal Revenue Service prepares for a delayed tax season, delivering stimulus checks to millions of Americans and other new mandates in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, a large swath of its workforce is home and not working while receiving normal pay.
Employees first began streaming out of their offices due to state-based stay-at-home orders. In Pennsylvania, for example, Gov. Tom Wolf, D, issued such a declaration for parts of his state last week, leading to most employees there being ordered home. IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig followed that up several days later with a mandatory evacuation order, sending home virtually all of the agency’s 74,000 employees. The order enabled the agency to require all employees who could telework to do so.
That left many employees, however, unable to work, as they do not possess telework capacity. One Pittsburgh-based IRS employee told Government Executive he has been home on a form of administrative leave known as “weather and safety leave” since March 20. He is willing and able to work remotely, but his call center does not have laptops available to make that possible. IRS on Monday asked the employee to voluntarily telework and he agreed, but he has “no idea what the timeframe is for receiving a laptop which is required.”
“We are being paid basically to sit at home,” said the employee, who works in a call center with 400 colleagues. “I volunteered to telework, which means if I ever get a laptop, I will actually be able to work from home and actually earn the money that I’m already receiving for nothing.”
According to Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, just 44% of the IRS workforce is currently telework eligible and required to work. That would mean most of the remaining 41,000 employees are currently being paid not to work, though some are still reporting to offices that have remained open despite the evacuation order. The agency declined to confirm NTEU's figures or comment for this story. Reardon said IRS is currently working to expand a pilot program his union helped set up to enable customer service employees to telework, but it is unclear when that will happen.
“The pilot provides necessary equipment so that taxpayer calls can be handled at telework locations,” Reardon said. “As IRS is able to procure the required equipment, it is training employees so that they may accomplish their work at a telework location. There is no timeframe that NTEU is aware of for when that process will be completed.”
The IRS has modified its operations due the coronavirus outbreak and is facing a logistical challenge to quickly disburse payments to nearly every American under the $2 trillion stimulus bill President Trump recently signed into law, which includes a series of additional tax relief that the IRS must carry out.
The Office of Personnel Management in early March sent guidance to agencies explaining that paid weather and safety leave is available for employees who are not telework program participants and are subject to “quarantine periods under the direction of local or public health authorities.” In subsequent guidance issued on March 20, the same day IRS employees in Pittsburgh were sent home, OPM said agencies can force employees to telework through a policy called “evacuation pay” and those that do not “have work to assign to an evacuated employee” should offer weather and safety leave.
Several agencies have encountered similar, if less widespread, issues as the IRS. The Transportation Security Administration last month told managers to offer safety leave in 14-day increments to any employee who felt uncomfortable coming into work to ensure "they have time to assess their health status and coordinate personal and family matters." That led to hundreds of frontline screeners calling out and fears the agency would no longer be able to support airport operations. The Veterans Affairs Department last week quietly issued a memorandum to executives instructing them to allow employees ineligible for telework to take paid leave if they need to be home with children whose schools or daycares are closed. The leave can be approved in 15-day increments and also applies to employees subject to shelter in place orders or who have "known contact and direct exposure" to COVID-19.
The Defense Department this week issued guidance stating that any employees who are not able to telework and cannot access their worksites should receive safety leave. The U.S. Postal Service is only granting the administrative leave to employees ordered to quarantine themselves by a public health official.
On Tuesday, the Pittsburgh-based IRS employee received an update from the agency that a colleague at his office tested positive for COVID-19. The employee was last in the office the Friday before the office closed, when everyone was still required to report to work. Facilities management and the General Services Administration were working to “conduct the required cleaning.”
“IRS offices remain closed due to the executive order issued by the state of Pennsylvania until further notice,” the notice read.