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The Internal Revenue Service Twin Rivers Building in Ogden is pictured Friday, Sept. 18, 2020.

George Narvaes has been waiting.

Last February, he mailed his tax return to the Internal Revenue Service, but now, more than seven months later, he still hasn’t gotten a response and still awaits his refund. It’s exasperating, and the Longmont, Colorado, man wants answers.

“I cannot understate the burden this is placing on me,” Narvaes, who lives on a fixed income, said in an email to the Standard-Examiner, hoping the newspaper could offer insight being based in Ogden — a key IRS hub. “It has been almost seven months and you would think some of the backlog would be processed.”

As with many operations across the nation and beyond, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the IRS to scale back staffing at many of its offices, including its Ogden operations, as a safeguard against its spread. One of the upshots has been a slowdown in the processing of paper returns, like Narvaes’, upsetting many across the country. And as the pandemic lingers on, it’s still not crystal clear when the backlog of returns will be whittled to zero. Ogden serves as one of several tax processing centers around the country that handles paper returns.

It’s also not clear how many workers at the IRS — one of the top employers in Ogden — are back on the job in agency offices. Some 5,000 people work for the IRS at various locations around the Ogden area, but while some have returned to their work sites, others are handling work from home.

“Most IRS employees with jobs that can be done remotely remain on telework, which keeps them and their families safer during the pandemic,” Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a statement to the Standard-Examiner. Having employees work from home, he went on, makes it safer for those who return to IRS facilities, including Ogden’s, “because it provides more room for adequate physical spacing between work stations.”

The NTEU represents IRS workers in Ogden and across the country.

An official from the Professional Managers Association, which represents IRS managers in Ogden and across the nation, couldn’t offer insight on how many of the 75,000 IRS workers across the country are back on the job. However, Chad Hooper, the association president, said IRS worksites are still operating at only partial capacity due to COVID-19 concerns.

“Those sites are half-staffed for the most part to promote social distancing,” he said in a statement to the Standard-Examiner. He anticipates “maximum telework for the foreseeable future,” though some on leave because they face a high medical risk if they contract COVID-19 may start returning to work on Oct. 13 if they don’t submit medical documentation justifying continued leave.

Accordingly, the backlog of paper returns continues, though they’re being processed, and he offered no prediction on how long it will last. “We do expect continued delays since the staffing population must be kept low, based upon what we hear from our members,” Hooper said.

An IRS spokesman didn’t comment but pointed to an Aug. 31 statement from the agency for guidance. “We’re experiencing delays in processing paper tax returns due to limited staffing,” it reads in part. “If you already filed a paper return, we will process it in the order we received it.”

Such statements are of limited comfort to people like Narvaes and Barbara Rodriguez, stymied in their efforts to get clarification from IRS reps. Rodriguez, like Narvaes, also filed a paper return and isn’t sure if the IRS has received it.

“You do just wonder — is it lost in the mail?” said the San Diego, California, woman, who also reached out to the Standard-Examiner in her quest for information. She actually owed money on her tax return, and since her paper payment has not yet been processed, she’s received warning letters from the IRS, inquiring about the money she owes and warning of fines.

Such concerns notwithstanding, the safety of IRS employees is a key consideration for labor reps like Reardon. NTEU officials keep in regular contact with the IRS about cleaning and safety protocols at agency offices, and a continuing worry is about the use of face coverings.

NTEU reps “remain concerned that the rule requiring employees wear facial masks at work is not consistently enforced,” Reardon said. “The situation varies building to building and shift to shift, but we support the agency’s efforts to encourage everyone — frontline employees and managers — to follow this policy more strictly.”

Reardon also worries about safety at taxpayer assistance centers, where IRS employees come into contact with the public. Ogden has a taxpayer assistance center. The number of IRS employees who have contracted the ailment is “fairly low,” Reardon said, with three COVID-19-related deaths of IRS workers who belonged to the NTEU.

Still, for taxpayers like Narvaes and Rodriguez, it’s about getting reliable information, even if operations remain scaled back. “It would be nice to know what’s going on currently as to employees returning to work and about the delay in processing,” said Narvaes.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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