OGDEN — With tax season shifting into full gear, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, a major Ogden employer, has started recalling workers who have been on leave to ready for the expected uptick in activity.
Aside from taking leave, many have been working from home, and the IRS move reflects a gradual shift for IRS workers back to offices, even as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers on.
The vast majority of the employees facing recall “work in our campus facilities,” like Ogden, the IRS said in a statement to the Standard-Examiner. “The decision to recall these non-telework employees was made after extensive discussions on the need to balance serving taxpayers and ensuring employees’ safety in the workplace.”
The precise impact in the Ogden area, home to some 5,000 IRS employees, remains unclear. Officials from the federal agency didn’t break down the number of employees here working from home and in offices. But the decision to start recalling more workers drew a cautionary response from the head of the union that represents many IRS workers, the National Treasury Employees Union, or NTEU.
Tony Reardon, the NTEU president, said that the agency started last year to increase the number of people who must report to offices to handle “tasks that are not portable.” Combined with the latest recall, announced in late January, and the continued COVID-19 threat, some are getting nervous.
As of Jan. 30, around 65,000 IRS employees across the country reported that they were teleworking either partially or full time, the IRS said. Around 27,500 IRS workers were reporting to an IRS facility for part-time or full-time work.
“Those recalls have heightened the anxiety level of employees and understandably increased the need for health and safety protocols in the workplace. NTEU is working with the agency on improving those protocols, especially a more strict and consistent enforcement of the mask policy, appropriate cleaning and disinfecting, ample (personal protective equipment) and adequate physical distancing between employees,” Reardon said in a statement to the Standard-Examiner.
Safety, he went on, remains a big worry.
“As the IRS prepares for what will be its second tax filing season during coronavirus, the pandemic continues with new variants, cases and deaths on the rise and vaccines still too scarce. There remain serious concerns about the safety of employees who must report to their work sites,” Reardon said. The tax filing season this year started Feb. 12.
IRS operations in Ogden are spread out at numerous sizable facilities in the city and the NTEU said in a memo to IRS workers last week that an order from President Joe Biden calls on federal workplaces to stay at or below 25% occupancy to guard against COVID-19’s spread. “With additional employees in IRS facilities, NTEU wants to be sure that the IRS has social distancing plans that conform to that mandate,” the memo said.
The IRS, meantime, offered assurances that it is mindful of safety.
“In recent months, we have continued to resume our important operations in our facilities while still maintaining maximum telework wherever possible. Using a wide range of precautions, we have safely brought employees back to do mission-critical work where people must be physically in the building,” the IRS statement said. The agency is following guidelines set out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with regard to cleaning work areas, keeping workers socially distanced and mask use.
Beyond the workers, the agency also has to factor the interests of taxpayers in making sure their paperwork is processed. Delays in processing some tax returns last year because of the pandemic and its impact on the agency prompted irritation among some.
Reps from the Ogden-area NTEU chapter didn’t respond to queries seeking comment.