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IRS Cutting Staff At Mission-Critical Sites Because Of Virus

By David van den Berg · March 20, 2020, 7:14 PM EDT

The Internal Revenue Service is cutting 50% of staff at sites needed for mission-critical work because of the novel coronavirus, Commissioner Chuck Rettig told employees in a memo posted Friday by the union that oversees IRS employees.

The action is one of several Rettig announced in response to the coronavirus pandemic listed in the memo, which was posted by the National Treasury Employees Union. Others include requesting all telework-eligible employees to work remotely and placing workers who aren't eligible for telework on "weather and safety leave." Rettig also said that the agency has closed offices and facilities in areas that have been hit hard by the virus and that the agency is working with federal, local and state authorities on those issues.

"We have maximized telework flexibilities to all current telework-eligible employees, consistent with the operational needs of the agency," Rettig wrote. "We are using all existing authorities to offer telework to additional employees, to the extent their work could be telework-enabled. We are required to operate within certain authorities and guidance, and we have expanded to the edges of this ever-changing situation, both locally and nationally."

The agency will reassess its plans on April 4 and continue to monitor developments, Rettig said.

The IRS also announced Friday that it was closing all taxpayer assistance centers until further notice. The union said Rettig's memo was issued Thursday. He said in it that the agency was ending all walk-in and in-person appointments at the centers. 

Representatives of the IRS did not respond to requests for comment.

Rettig's memo followed one issued March 13 in which he said the agency was working to maximize telework flexibility for eligible employees. That memo also said that senior leaders were instructed to be flexible in approving leave requests and that all front-line IRS field compliance workers and customer service employees who interact face to face with taxpayers have the option to avoid all in-person interactions with taxpayers “by any reasonable means.”

“We have employees in heavily COVID-19-impacted areas like Seattle and New York that have continued in-person taxpayer contacts, and those contacts should stop immediately,” Rettig said in the March 13 memo, referring to the disease caused by the virus.

In a statement Friday, NTEU President Tony Reardon said the changes were not enough to protect workers. The union wants all federal buildings, including IRS facilities, where 50 or more federal employees work shut down, Reardon said. In addition, Reardon said, the tax return filing deadline should be further extended to Oct. 15. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced Friday the deadline would be extended from April 15 to July 15.

“A broader shutdown of the IRS would give the agency time to clean all facilities and prepare to bring back those employees essential to issuing refunds to taxpayers and stimulus checks, as needed,” Reardon said. “NTEU remains troubled about large numbers of employees still reporting to work contrary to the recommended gathering sizes; the inability to enact safe social distancing in these environments; and the lack of essentials necessary to sanitize hands and work surfaces.”

The union confirmed to Law360 that IRS facilities in Fresno, California and Philadelphia have already been closed as a result of the virus.

Through the capacity cut to 50 percent, the IRS is working to balance filing season requirements with the needs of workers to stay safe distances from each other, but that is a challenging task, former National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson, who left her post last summer, told Law360.

“First, IRS employees who answer the majority of phone calls, or who process correspondence or returns, are not set up for telework,” Olson said. “Although in the past there were pilots for employees to answer calls via telework, at the time I left the IRS, they were not widely implemented. Moreover, there is really no way to process correspondence or returns other than to be in an IRS location.”

--Editing by Vincent Sherry. 

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